What happens when your best friend and co-worker is a member of the opposite sex, you’re hopelessly attracted to them, but you can’t pursue anything because you’re in a long-term relationship headed toward matrimony? Those are the depths that Joe Swanberg’s neo-slacker essay plumbs, and it gets even more complicated when Kate (Olivia Wilde) and Luke (Jake Johnson) bring their significant others along for a couples getaway in the woods. In the middle of the night, after some silly drinking games, the two, who work at a Chicago micro-brewery together, sneak down to the beach and build a raging bonfire. The sexual tension’s aflame too, a veritable tinder box of unrequited passion, needy and raw and open to that game-changing spark. You might feel sorry for their significant others, but they’re not so innocent themselves. Earlier in the day, Jill (Anna Kendrick) and Chris (Ron Livingston) went out for a hike, drank some wine and after an awkward conversation about love, life, and fulfillment, also rolled perilously close to the precipice of crossing over.
If there’s one thing painfully obvious (like My Best Friend’s Wedding obvious), it’s that Luke and Kate are meant to be together, but thankfully Swanberg, who was one of the early adopters of mumblecore filmmaking (the lo-fi indie film movement where production values, most notably sound, play second fiddle to the visceral and ideological elements), is after something a bit more nuanced and un-Hollywood. For inexplicable reasons Chris leaves Kate, which further enables Kate and Luke’s hop-infused brewmance. The pair, along with other vat rats from work, spend many a late night lighting up the dingy side of Chicago, while Jill, a teacher by trade, sits at home toiling away on art projects for her special needs students.
The crescendo of consequence seems ripe for revelation, but not all batches of brew are crisp and golden, and this one goes sour when Kate begins to find her sexual liberation (by bedding other men) and Luke, normally the hip jokester, doesn’t quite know how to react. It’s a piquant conundrum of conflict to chomp into, but then again, we’re tagging along with largely unanchored people who don’t seem to have any discernible dreams for the future, not even a bungee jump or a Pacific crossing to see the Great Wall of China. Because of that, Swanberg’s unbridled character exploration begins to sag under the weight of its subjects’ pouty malaise.
It’s important to note that Swanberg’s a competent director and committed to his game. He’s cranked out more than a dozen flicks since 2005 and prolifically appears in other mumblecore and mumblehorror directors’ films — most recently as an uptight yuppie in You’re Next. If you look back at Swanberg’s career, many of his early slacker-themed films like Hannah Takes the Stairs (which starred Mark Duplass, Bujalski, and Greta Gerwig) center around disenfranchised young adults seeking self-gratification. Drinking Buddies takes a slightly older generation and goes down a path beyond the “me” and into the realm of commitment, responsibility, and family.
The secret yeast that makes this film ferment and keeps it sharp is Wilde. She’s done her share of being a sultry side dish (TRON: Legacy), but here she’s able to showcase a verve and range few might have thought possible. Johnson too, best known from TV’s New Girl, is able to effortlessly connote character with his darting eyes and sly smile.
Unfortunately, the normally redoubtable Kendrick (Up in the Air) and curmudgeonly Livingstone (Office Space) have less to work with. Their characters feel like props, lazily constructed puppets imbued with domineering asexual unattractiveness to underscore the inevitability of Luke and Kate. At times it feels like a cheap trick, but in the end, Swanberg has the last laugh as the film ties up on a surprising and contemplative high note.
Perhaps the maestro of mumblecore is ready for the mainstream.