There's something to be said for making the same movie over and over. A master like Hong Sang-soo, for example, has turned repetition into a kind of creative engine, affecting minute, elegant variations on the same stories and themes. Joe Swanberg has never exerted such control over his creative domain, but a similar fixation on recurring premises and topics has grown into its own remarkable style, one that jibes with the improvisational looseness of the director's movies, which function as living workshops for his ideas to develop. Dressing up an otherwise familiar concept, Drinking Buddies finds Swanberg upgrading his established system for telling intimate, finely detailed stories, working with a bigger budget and some recognizable faces, but the embellishments don't necessarily feel beneficial to his aesthetic. It's therefore not too surprising that the film comes off as a shaky misstep, less precise and cohesive than much of his recent work, as its small, improvisational skeleton struggles to meet the demands of the more ambitious story it's trying to tell.
Largely set at a Chicago micro-brewery, the film focuses on a few of its employees, who seem to spend most of their free time drinking, a sort of extracurricular research which provides fuel for all manners of interpersonal angst. Most of this trouble centers around bearded jokester Luke (Jake Johnson), who nurses an obvious crush on co-worker Kate (Olivia Wilde), the den mother to this loosely run workplace, who makes important-sounding phone calls from an office while the boys tramp around in waders on the brewing floor. Any potential romance between her and Jake is blocked by their respective partners, Chris (Ron Livingston) and Jill (Anna Kendrick), both seemingly stodgy wet blankets who hold traditional jobs and don't show much interest in post-work boozing.
Setting up the intertwined relationship between two similarly balanced couples, the film seems at first to be pursuing a tried-and-true rom-com scenario, replete with partner swapping and eureka-like realizations of meant-for-each-other-all-along destiny. Instead, this familiarity is used as a launching pad for a more probing examination of interpersonal issues. The two couples come together on a weekend trip to a Michigan lake house, a scenario that most movies would reserve for the climax, but here gets smartly positioned at the start of the second act. This placement is key, pointing toward the film's embedded interest in subverting starry-eyed romantic tropes, pushing the plot toward something more pragmatic and relatable. The focus here ends up being less on the initial sparking of love than the things that have to be done to cultivate it in the long term. One relationship dissolves, while the other edges forward into the unknown, a situation that explores how the qualities that make for initial romantic magnetism aren't always the same that lead to enduring stability.
All this comes together in one long, sweltering set piece, which reveals what lies beneath the playful rapport that's fueled Jake and Kate's flirtation. Unfortunately, that development is accompanied by a certain structural fuzziness, and while such flaws were frequently present in previous works, they feel more out of place in such a professional-looking, plot-driven movie. There are prospective storylines and characters that go nowhere, from the mysterious disappearance of a seemingly central figure to the frustrated boss played by Jason Sudeikis, who ends up serving no purpose whatsoever. The unsteady handle on how these pieces fit together ends up obscuring the moments of real drama that do get presented.
The allure of shared interests and easy chemistry has always acted as a siren's song in Swanberg's movies, with characters departing solid relationships for the rocky shoals of supposedly pure, ultimately fantastical passions. It's a nice corrective both to the frothy sweep of most modern romances and the general worldview of a generation served by OkCupid algorithms and Facebook friendship matrices, which have led to a common misconception of love as something constructed from common interests. Swanberg continues to pick at this fallacy, surveying the divide between attraction and devotion, and the conclusions he draws remain salient, even though the acuity of ideas is often buried within the sprawl of his newly expanded style. Partially hampered by the very improvisational structure which keeps it interesting despite its flaws, Drinking Buddies will hopefully serve as an instructional speed bump, and one whose scruffiness paves the way for more clearly shaped experiments in the future.