This week I had the pleasure of spending just under two hours with actual humans. There were no capes on screen, no spandex visible either. The stories morality was not black and white, good vs. evil but rather complicated and messy. There were no visible special effects or final action sequences. It was so disturbingly of this time and place I’m shocked that it was released between the months of May and August. The film is Drinking Buddies and it contains more pathos in its beer soaked pinky than the entire planet of Krypton.
Drinking Buddies is the latest mumblecore, improv experiment from Director Joe Swanberg (Hannah Takes the Stairs, Art History.) He’s part of a small revolution of indie filmmakers creating works of hyper-reality fiction. The films have skeleton plot but rarely contain scripts leaving the actors the ability to navigate their way from scene-to-scene. This can lead to scenes of intense emotion or humor but can leave lesser actors on an island with no life preserver. It can get awkward. Luckily Drinking Buddies is full of accomplished, professional actors who can carry a scene. Jake Johnson (New Girl) plays Luke, a late-twenties beer maker at a small craft-brewery in Chicago. He enjoys his days mostly because they involve making beer, drinking it and flirting with the attractive, charismatic Kate (Olivia Wilde.) Kate is the brains behind the brewery; she runs the administrative side and is the self-proclaimed face of the place.
Their relationship is cute but somewhat complicated. They both are clearly attracted to each other but each have significant others. Jake is dating Jill (Anna Kendrick) with plans on proposing…at some point (he’s not the most ambitious fellow) while Kate is seeing Chris (Ron Livingston.) Chris is an older, wiser record producer who clearly pursued Kate for physical reasons and is now realizing they may have significantly less in common than he originally ignored.
One random weekend the couples take off together to Chris’ remote cabin for a few days away. Things get slightly complicated as Luke and Kate say no to a hiking trip leaving Jill and Chris to their own devices. Needless to say the two couples get closer with the others…other.
This may sound like canned, romantic comedy plot devices but in Drinking Buddies Swanberg handles the situations with a natural touch. Nothing unfolds in a contrived way (except for a fairly crucial scene near the films conclusion) and often never reaches the point of catharsis that a traditional film would allow the audience. It’s frustrating to experience but upon reflection is refreshing in its reality.
Olivia Wilde, along with starring in the film, executive produced it. It’s clear why. Her public persona is one of dreamy pin-up girl. Her beauty has rarely afforded her a role that she is capable of. Here, she ditches the layers of make-up and displays a depth of character that many suspected she had in her. Kate is complicated and messy but also beautiful and endearing. It’s a fine line to not become the classic movie “tease” and Wilde does it perfectly. I hope she seeks more roles that are this meaty because she deserves them and could be one of my generation’s best actresses.
Jake Johnson is a revelation on the TV show New Girl. His charisma on the show has created an iconic twentysomething character that will go down as one of the best in TV history. During this time he has dabbled briefly in film with mixed results. Finally in Drinking Buddies he finds the sturdy comic/dramatic ground that’s made his Nick Miller such a joy to watch. Luke is not particularly complicated but as his feelings for Kate become more overt and complicated Johnson is more than capable of handling the weight.
I was probably won over by Drinking Buddies quicker than most because it centers on one of my central loves, craft beer (easily the best of all things craft, far ahead of fair and store.) It’s not that the film dives into the nerdery of the craft brew experience but does use the backdrop effectively. Also, having alcohol readily available and consuming it constantly probably doesn’t help the relationships on display.
Drinking Buddies is not perfection, far from it. It’s languid, meandering pace can be a chore and the characters aren’t exactly easy people to be around. But in a summer full of high-concept, special effects junk it was such an exciting moment to discover a film that allowed 4-people to talk and interact as people, flaws and all. They look like they make a killer IPA too.