Joe Swanberg’s Drinking Buddies initially looks like it’s headed for The Big Chill territory, as two Chicago couples (Olivia Wilde and Ron Livingston, Anna Kendrick and Jake Johnson) drive up to a lakefront cabin. The former pair has been dating for eight months; the latter has been avoiding the marriage “convo.” There’s a high level of trust among this foursome, despite the fact that Wilde and Johnson, handsy co-workers at the city’s Revolution Brewing, are fast becoming more than friends. They’re not the only ones: When Kendrick and Livingston go off for a hike in the woods, they share a kiss that neither one seems to regret. Whether they’ll acknowledge this moment—to each other or to their significant others—is a matter that colors all the subsequent action.
Pivoting largely on this incident—along with a late-night bonfire Johnson and Wilde build on the beach while their partners sleep—Drinking Buddies is not quite Swanberg’s The Loneliest Planet. But it’s almost certainly the prolific mumble-maker’s subtlest film, structured around its characters’ reluctance to act on (or even speak of) obvious feelings. Swanberg, who wrote, directed, and edited, keeps finding ways to break his cast into pairs, pushing these couples closer to booze-fueled transgressions and taking full advantage of his viewers’ privileged perspective. Visually, the movie is also striking, thanks to adroit widescreen framing by Beasts Of The Southern Wild cinematographer Ben Richardson. (It’s rare to see suspense mined simply from the way two stars’ faces hover slightly closer than they should.) As usual with Swanberg, a fair amount of improvisational flailing is passed off as authenticity, though this time, an appealing—and, considering the director, uncharacteristically clothed—pro cast is generally up to the task. The movie’s seeming plotlessness falls away as tensions rise during a lengthy sequence of Johnson helping Wilde with a move. The entire film unfolds in a recognizable register of ominous hesitation; the results are a bit schematic but nevertheless hit on something real.
As overused tropes in film go, can men and women ever really be friends might just be the most common. In Drinking Buddies, writer/director Joe Swanberg asks this question once again, the answer being a resounding maybe. While the film's theme may be as old as movies themselves, Drinking Buddies manages to feel entirely modern; the film's maybe-emotionally-stunted adult adolescents who drink too much beer and eat too much takeout will feel entirely familiar to viewers of a certain age. It's also incredibly intimate. For a movie with only very brief nudity, Drinking Buddies feels almost voyeuristic to watch, in the way that too much honesty and vulnerability can be embarrassing to witness.
Drinking Buddies takes its time. From its onset, it's never in any hurry to get someplace, happy instead to simply follow its four main characters' journeys. Kate and Luke (Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson) are extremely close coworkers at a craft brewery. Chris and Jill (Ron Livingston and Anna Kendrick) are their respective significant others. Drama ensues when a weekend camping trip to Michigan complicates the relationships between all four.
Much of Drinking Buddies' success falls on Wilde. Despite nearly a decade of trying to become A Thing, she's still best known (to me at least) as the girl from the Bait Shop Mischa Barton went lesbian with on The O.C. In 2012, she made three movies. Name one. But here, Wilde has perhaps finally found where she belongs in Hollywood. In Drinking Buddies she's this pulsating ball of unbridled energy: dangerous, unpredictable, confident, damaged, passionate, absolutely magnetic and, most importantly perhaps, exceedingly memorable. She's flanked by a capable supporting cast: Johnson does his familiar rough-around-the-edges good guy schtick, gravel-voiced Livingston and Kendrick, charismatic as ever as Johnson's young girlfriend. Kendrick is particularly impressive here, tapping into a youthful timidness seemingly with the wisdom of someone looking back, and not as an actual 28 year old herself.
What feels so fresh, so different about Drinking Buddies is that it's unafraid to make bold choices. Drinking Buddies is not When Harry Met Sally... Swanberg isn't just exploring romantic relationships, he's exploring friendships, as well, and complete strangers. And who says perfect for each other can't just mean friends anyway? It's a nice subversion of the friends-who-should-be-more romantic comedy genre. And while Drinking Buddies is witty and light-hearted it is at its core a dramatic character study.
In a world where the lines between coworker and friend and friend and lover are paper thin, is any relationship ever fully defined? Add alcohol to the mix and everything starts to look like a grey area, doesn't it? Drinking Buddies may not have the answers to all these questions, but isn't the journey supposed to half the fun anyway?