by Julian Spivey
Joe Swanberg’s “Drinking Buddies” feels like the kind of low-key, down-to-earth, naturalistic movie that people always seem to want to make right after graduating from film school. That’s a compliment, just in case you’re confused, as this is the type of film many go to film school in the first place to create. I doubt many go into film school thinking they want to be the next Michael Bay. And, thank God for that.
Swanberg’s film, which he also wrote (but it has been reported that it’s mostly improvised), follows two work buddies — Luke (Jake Johnson) and Kate (Olivia Wilde) — through a short span of time as they deal with their respective relationships to Jill (Anna Kendrick) and Chris (Ron Livingston) while also maintaining a realistically flirty friendship.
The film follows the typical trope of “will they or won’t they” with Luke and Kate, but it works better than most because of the unbelievable chemistry that Johnson and Wilde share. It’s a naturalistic view on how close friendships between men and women can quickly jump to something more — and the impact that might have on the friendship as a whole. Johnson and Wilde were perfect casting for these roles.
Believe it or not, I’ve been mostly unfamiliar with Wilde’s work and was pleasantly surprised here after she seemingly has done panned movie after panned movie in her career. Johnson, I believe, could be one of film’s great up and comers (and has already proven to be so on television as the irascibly funny Nick Miller on Fox’s sitcom “New Girl”). Johnson appeared in a supporting role in one of my favorite movies of 2012 — Colin Trevorrow’s “Safety Not Guaranteed” — in which he nearly stole the entire film with his devastating portrayal of a thirtysomething longing to go back in time and re-do or re-live important portions or moments in his life. He’s one of the funniest guys around at the current moment, but also has a great knack for naturalistic drama. I firmly believe that we’ll be seeing good things from Johnson for some time.
Anna Kendrick and Ron Livingston do fine work here, as well, as the significant others of Luke and Kate, but never shine as brightly as Johnson and Wilde. Part of the reason why is that because Johnson and Wilde have such a perfect chemistry together that Kendrick and Johnson and Wilde and Livingston don’t seem like they should ever be together — which isn’t really a critique, because it’s a lot of the point.
I was mesmerized by this film’s realistic feel the entire time I watched it so much that I wasn’t surprised when I found out afterward that it was mostly improvised. Swanberg reportedly had a basic outline and just let his actors go for it. This goes back to what I said in the opening of this review about it being the film people wanted to make in film school. It’s stripped down to the basics of filmmaking and there’s something so incredibly refreshing and interesting about that.
The only thing working against “Drinking Buddies” is that I think it’s a film that has specific audiences, meaning that many might feel turned off by it. I think it’s a film that if you watch as a film buff, particularly a fan of indies, for technical aspects — how it was accomplished and what not — that you’ll come out feeling refreshed like I did. It somewhat feels new and original in that it feels so low-scale and improvised. It’s also a film that I think will work for those who can identify with Luke and Kate, particularly those who’ve been in a similar situation (which is likely a good portion of film viewers).
The ending of the film is one that is likely to leave many viewers disappointed — and I felt that it was too rushed — but I think it ultimately works in that it’s a realistic ending to a realistic movie.
“Drinking Buddies” can currently be seen on both pay-per-view and via iTunes for $10. If that price is a little too steep for you (it’s cheaper than if you saw it in theatres, though) it’ll definitely be worth the viewing when it comes to a RedBox near you.