Opening in cities nationwide this Friday, Drinking Buddies represents a significant moment in the career of writer/director Joe Swanberg – a step into the mainstream for the famously independent filmmaker. More than anyone except perhaps Mark Duplass, Swanberg is often associated with the “mumblecore” film movement, a term that he himself only half-embraces. His low-budget successes such as Kissing on the Mouth and Hannah takes the Stairs got the attention of Hollywood, earning him a much bigger budget and a few movie stars; for his latest, he got $500,000, Olivia Wilde, and Anna Kendrick.
But if Drinking Buddies is any indication, Swanberg seems not quite ready to embrace the mainstream. The film feels split in two: there is a conventional romantic comedy with a will-they-or-won’t-they sitcom plot, as well as a darker, more penetrating story about alcoholism and hipster culture. Only one of them works.
Wilde and Jake Johnson (TV’s New Girl) star as Kate and Luke, employees at a Chicago microbrewery. It is clear from the start that Kate and Luke are into each other; they have a playful, flirtatious relationship that involves lots of touching, and neither seems particularly interested in their significant others (Kendrick and an excellent, under-used Ron Livingston). When all four of them head off to a cabin in the woods, it’s Kendrick and Livingston who hit it off, a plot twist cribbed from one of the genre’s seminal films, When Harry Met Sally, which had characters played by Bruno Kirby and Carrie Fisher finding love on a double date with that film’s central duo.
Slow, semi-comic relationship movies like Drinking Buddies depend on the audience having fun with its characters, but Kate and Luke barely end up sympathetic, let alone likeable. Wilde and Johnson may have genuine chemistry, but neither one is able to uncover anything tender beneath their hipster posturing. Only Ron Livingston makes a deep impression, and, perhaps not coincidentally, he basically disappears from the film after the first third.
What’s frustrating is that there are moments when the darker, more incisive film Swanberg could have made – perhaps without a bigger budget and the expectation of commercial success – break through. As the title suggests, the relationship between Luke and Kate is built mostly on a not-so-solid foundation of drinking. Along with their colleagues, they drink both to celebrate and to mourn, and it seems likely that they work at a microbrewery only to justify their drinking. While alcoholism is never explicitly mentioned, drinking is revealed to be an increasingly large part of the problem, especially for Kate. When Luke arrives at her apartment to help her move, even he – a daily drinker – is shocked by her lifestyle: the decorations, gifts, and even the cake from a birthday party that took place months prior have not yet been cleaned up.
It is in these startling and dark moments that Drinking Buddies works best, which makes its timid return to rom-com conventions so maddening. Particularly egregious is the film’s final wordless scene between Wilde and Johnson, which aims to assure us that everything will be all right, even though all evidence points to the contrary.
Still, I suppose one could read the film as some sort of commentary on these problems of character and tone, instead of a perpetrator of them. Swanberg is trying to have it both ways, catering to the hipster generation for whom microbreweries and neck beards are a way of life, while simultaneously deconstructing them. But Livingston’s character says it best, when describing a local band that he has begun working with: “There is this cellist, and I’m not sure if it’s supposed to be ironic or not.” With that gentle hypocrisy in mind, you might consider Drinking Buddies a post-hipster masterpiece, but I just found it tough to swallow.
My Rating: Put it on Your Queue