With Drinking Buddies, writer-director Joe Swanberg hitches his talents and concerns to the mainstream romantic comedy template and forges a mutation that occasionally resembles Lynn Shelton’s similarly intentioned Your Sister’s Sister. Swanberg’s film follows Kate (Olivia Wilde) and Luke (Jake Johnson), two friends working together at a micro-brewery who’re beginning to realize that they might be growing toward that point when drinking your weight in booze every night at the local bar isn’t cute anymore. It’s also immediately apparent that Kate and Luke are in love with one another, which is so obvious as to render the reveal of their actual significant others, Kate’s boyfriend, Chris (Ron Livingston), and Jake’s girlfriend, Jill (Anna Kendrick), as something of a shock.
All of Swanberg’s films are experimental in some fashion, and Drinking Buddies is clearly the director’s stab at making a film that honors his aesthetic while opening it out to a potentially much wider audience. The rough edges we expect of Swanberg’s films have been deliberately sanded away, particularly in regard to blocking and cutting, as this is perhaps the first of his films that could be said to be legitimately visually elegant. The director has cited 1970s landmarks such as Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice as influences and it shows; the images are alive and wonderfully open, and you can sense the assurance of a guiding hand directing your attention to the necessary details. The resonances and dissonances of the filmmaker’s earliest work often felt accidental, but here the subtext has clearly been actively achieved from scene to scene.
On the surface, Drinking Buddies is about a romance that can never quite happen, because its potential participants are at a weird age where they’re young enough to take it for granted that they will encounter love again, and old enough to have weathered a few scars that leave them hesitant to pursue an obviously promising opportunity. But it’s also possible that this read of the film may give Kate and Luke too much credit, as they appear to be profoundly superficial people: Swanberg, pointedly, tells us nothing about these two apart from their love of partying and for each other, and, after a while, we get to wondering why this pair merits a film.
Kate and Luke never do attain the stature of major characters, at least not in a traditional narrative sense, and that’s Swanberg’s intent, as this is a movie about a very particular and common type of rootless American who finds a way to make their post-college beer/bong fugue state last the better part of 15 years or potentially even more. But the emptiness of this life of temporary highs and fast food and cramped dirty apartments is losing its luster for both of them, and this urgency is manifesting itself in Kate and Luke’s blossoming romantic tension. Though Swanberg eventually has the daring to pull even that rug out from under us, as the ending implies that everything that we’ve seen occur between Kate and Luke has happened dozens of times before, probably when one or both of them have felt lonelier or less substantial than usual.
Drinking Buddies is ultimately revealed to be a precise and tender portrait of co-dependency as well as an exploration of the romantic confusion that’s arisen in relationships between members of the last few generations as a result of their “openness” with each other, especially about sex and love. Younger people might not observe the austere hypocritical decorum that characterized discourse between the men and women of portions of the baby-boomer generation, or of earlier generations, but that easy, carefree way that we’ve adopted of treating everyone in our lives in the same fashion, regardless of the context of their association with us, carries a creepy suggestion of anonymity that can leave us feeling adrift—empowered, untethered, but useless. This is Swanberg’s most conventional film, but only on the surface. Residing underneath is perhaps his most coherent and effective dramatization of the discrepancy between what Generations X and Y respectively say and what they actually mean.
This image makes a strong case for Joe Swanberg’s blossoming formal craftsmanship and for cinematographer Ben Richard’s gift for shooting images that appear to spontaneously shift as necessary with the restless characters. Colors are strong, varied, warm, and there’s a sense of tangibly lived-in texture that’s still striking for a digitally produced image; it’s clean, but not supernaturally pristine in a creepily flawless video-game sense. (The filmmakers were astute enough to compose a visual palette with enough earthy variety to resist the blandish dangers of the digital realm.) The English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio surround track is an appropriately quiet, low-key mix that layers the differing volumes of incidental character chatter with subtle dexterity.
The audio commentary by writer-director Joe Swanberg and producers Andrea Roa Alicia Van Couvering is informal, unpretentious, and packed with insight into the intentions and realities of making the film. It’s a sturdy listen, particularly for aspiring directors, which are obviously the intended audience. It’s a good thing, too, because the rest of the supplements are meaningless throwaway puff pieces, particularly the interview with "Drinking Made Easy" host Zane Lamprey, which is so pathetic it may cause you to wonder if it’s a deliberate joke.
Mumblecore, schmumblecore, Drinking Buddies finds Joe Swanberg growing confidently into his status as one of America’s most promising contemporary poets of not-quite-youthful confusion.