It seems like you can’t talk about director Joe Swanberg’s work without talking about mumblecore. Love it or hate it, it’s a useful term to describe that particular kind of movie, and by all accounts he is one of the masters of the genre. Reviews of his new film Drinking Buddies uniformly acknowledge that his latest is a significant step for Swanberg, even hyperbolically declaring it his escape from “the mumblecore ghetto.” But it seems less an escape than a deliberate change of heart, a decision by a filmmaker with over a dozen micro-budget features to his credit (and a family to support) to give it the old Hollywood try. The biggest and most blatant evidence of this change can be seen in the cast of known actors and the more polished cinematography by Ben Richardson (Beasts of the Southern Wild). But taken on its own terms Drinking Buddies still feels far more like an indie than a studio film. Though the trailer promises a tightly-paced romantic comedy, it’s essentially an edit of the story’s emotional peaks. True to its source, Drinking Buddies is more invested in improvisatory journey than in plotted structure.
Inspired by his love of beer, Swanberg set Drinking Buddies at a craft brewery in Chicago. Olivia Wilde and Jack Johnson play Kate and Luke, brewery coworkers who pal around on lunch break and share pints after work. Their chaste flirting seems innocuous, especially since Luke lives with his long-time girlfriend Jill (Anna Kendrick), and Kate is dating music producer Chris (Ron Livingston). But when the two couples spend the weekend at a lakeside cabin the crosscurrents of attraction become harder to ignore. Kate and Luke toe the line, having long sublimated desire into a suspicious kind of friendship. But Chris is also drawn to Jill and feels compelled to act on it, kissing her while the two are on a hike alone. As soon as they get back to Chicago, Chris breaks up with Kate, essentially removing himself from the plot, which then centers on Kate and Luke’s “will they or won’t they.”
This is a shame, because for me Ron Livingston is the best thing about the movie, and his presence gives a jolt of purpose to every scene he’s in. This has a lot to do with the fact that Kate and Luke, and to some extent Jill, are supposed to be in their late twenties but act much younger. They have the inarticulate, sidestepping conversations of people barely past the legal drinking age, and are incredibly embarrassed to admit to any kind of emotion. Case in point: Kate goes to visit Chris after they’ve broken up, and is coy and guarded, reduced to (curiously gendered) chitchat about the weather: “It’s so hot out, I’m just like sweatin’ my balls off.” Chris hones in on her emotional illiteracy, twice referencing what he’s articulated already: “Here’s the thing, I was serious about what I said the other day… What I said was that I don’t think that this is working.” Then Swanberg curiously cuts the scene, and what we get in the way of reaction is Kate storming outside, where she discovers her bike’s been stripped of its parts. She yells and kicks the bike’s frame then walks off.
I’ll admit I found Kate a little confusing. Olivia Wilde plays her with a loose, gangly charm, but with those killer cheekbones and toned Hollywood body she seems like a tomboy fantasy. This might be unfair, but putting Wilde in tank tops, Chuck Taylors, and no makeup feels like the 1980s move of putting the hot best friend in glasses to magically camouflage her hotness. Watching her swill pint after pint of beer, all I could think is, where do those carbs go? Apparently the cast actually drank beer (not apple juice or some such) during the shoot, which gives it a nice buzzed feeling. But many of the scenes drag on a bit too long, and have a childish, awkward quality (for adults, Kate and Luke sure smoosh a lot of food in each other’s faces). This is my problem with improvisation. I respect its authenticity, the demands it makes of actors, and the ways it subverts the rote aspects of shooting a movie: hitting your marks, predetermined emotional reactions, and repetitive coverage of a scene from various camera angles. Swanberg seems to have great instincts on how to make the process of telling a story a live and vital thing for his actors. When it works, it really works, and gives the performances a raw quality that’s difficult to get from a scripted scene. But when it doesn’t, the actors can seem somewhat stranded in a meandering moment that doesn’t anchor in the story as a whole.
In the end, the arc of Drinking Buddies is very slight. For a movie about the nuances of infidelity there isn’t much drama onscreen, but there are a couple of sequences that show a tremendous amount of potential. Since there’s so little consummation, it leaves room to explore the lesser realms of betrayal. My favorite sequence not featuring Ron Livingston is when Luke helps Kate move. Luke is both inured to the rhythms of relationship, and constrained in how he can express his affection for Kate, so it makes perfect sense that he offers to help her move. It’s an innocent excuse to keep hanging out with her, a sweet gesture that’s also kind of intimate, and one that enables him to feel strong and masculine. It’s a nice detail that Kate’s apartment is still filled with party detritus from a birthday shindig of the past, including a sad, limp Happy Birthday banner hanging from the rafters. Even Luke is a bit disgusted by Kate’s slovenly habits, which sets off the push-and-pull nature of their chemistry. But midway through the sequence Swanberg upends our expectations and abruptly switches tones. Luke cuts his hand on a nail while moving Kate’s couch, and this seems to break the romantic thrall of the day. Kate is useless in an emergency, blanching and backing away rather than helping him. And Luke gets sulky and possessive when she calls in backup, particularly a guy from the brewery she’s slept with. Luke seems to shrink in comparison. He can’t and won’t give Kate what she needs, but he perversely doesn’t want anyone else to either.
Of Drinking Buddies, Swanberg has said, “I would almost call it my first film,” a humble way of acknowledging that directing films is often a matter of practice. As mumblecore slips into the past, we are seeing its hallmark directors move forward, with pretty varying and interesting results. Lynn Shelton’s Your Sister’s Sister (TMT Review) kept improvisation and also traded up for a more seasoned cast, with very funny results. The Duplass brothers have gone from The Puffy Chair to mainstream success, especially on TV with The League and an upcoming HBO show. My favorite of the bunch is O.G. Andrew Bujalski, who keeps his nerd flag waving high with the weird, absorbing, and utterly unique Computer Chess (TMT Review), one of my favorite films of the year. If Drinking Buddies left me somewhat unfulfilled, I think it showed a lot of promise, and I look forward to seeing Swanberg’s ‘second film.’