Noted indie filmmaker Joe Swanberg has never been one to court the mainstream. One of the godfathers of the mumblecore movement, the writer/director/sometimes actor has made his mark with a very small segment of the indie community, but his new movie Drinking Buddies may very well change that. This is a romantically tinged comedy of sorts that has very broad appeal, especially to those looking for more realism from this sort of flick. Swanberg is also buoyed by the best acting he’s ever had in a film of his, namely the duo of Jake Johnson and Olivia Wilde (yes, her). Along with co-stars Anna Kendrick and Ron Livingston, Johnson and Wilde create a vibrant set of characters that you really do want to spend time with. Swanberg gives them a lot of latitude to play while also telling a very specific story that’s refreshingly new for the genre, resulting in a movie that’s almost impossible not to like. The filmmaker is still observing the same sort of people in a comedic manner, but with a bit of a budget and a heaping dose of sexual tension, Swanberg is able to put out a career best work (unless you’re a real stickler for his first features). Drinking Buddies isn’t the best film of 2013, but it’s definitely one of the most likable.
The movie looks at the friendship of Luke (Johnson) and Kate (Wilde). They both work at a brewery in Chicago (the former as a brewer and the latter in their marketing office), and not only are they best friends, they pretty clearly are meant to be something more. In short, they’re perfect for each other. What’s preventing them from even considering taking that next step? Well, they’re both in committed and happy relationships. Luke’s been with his girlfriend Jill (Kendrick) for about a half decade and they’ve gotten to the point where they’re seriously talking about marriage. Kate’s being a little more mellow with her boyfriend Chris (Livingston), but she’s certainly not looking to step out or anything. They tease each other in the same way that kids on the playground do, and when their respective significant others meet and suggest they all take a trip together, the undercurrents only grow deeper. Especially on that vacation, you really see the depths of Luke and Kate’s connection, while we learn more about Jill and Chris at the same time. From there on, things manage not to go in the direction you’d expect them to at all, no small feat considering the set-up either.
I really dug that this film gives Jake Johnson and Olivia Wilde so much more to do than usual. Not only are they given lead roles to play with, they’re also allowed to use their own natural charm too, and it pays major dividends. Johnson has done something similar here and there (though not as effectively as here), but Wilde really does get to show off talents you’ve yet to see from her. She’s the most well rounded and compelling character of the quartet, so much so that she easily turns in the best performance in the flick. Anna Kendrick is her reliable self and Ron Livingston gets a bit of a bigger role than he’s been getting of late, but both are definitely in support of Johnson and Wilde. Kendrick fares better than Livingston (and both are very good), though Johnson and especially Wilde are the real highlights. The other supporting players include filmmaker Ti West, an uncredited Jason Sudeikis, and Swanberg himself, though none of them have the impact of the main four. Especially for Wilde’s eye opening performance, the acting is one of the chief reasons to check this movie out.
Joe Swanberg is clearly courting the mainstream here in a way he never has before, but he hasn’t abandoned his identity as a filmmaker either. His writer is at its most perceptive, while his direction is more confident than ever. It certainly doesn’t hurt that Swanberg has cinematographer Ben Richardson (from Beasts of the Southern Wild) shooting the flick, but it’s clear that the added cost of the film has gone towards making it look sharp (beer lovers will especially love the attention given to the various micro-brews on display). He also subtly changes the course of the film after that vacation the quartet take, slowly taking you from being more interested in Johnson’s character to wanting to follow around Wilde’s more. It’s actually pretty ingenious and works towards the effectiveness of the film’s climax.
Overall, Drinking Buddies is a fun little comedy that would seem pretty indie if not compared to the earlier works of Joe Swanberg. He’s doing very solid work, but he deserves the most credit for getting this performance out of Olivia Wilde. Between her, Jake Johnson, and all of the other small pleasures that you’ll have to see the film to discover, this is a real easy flick to recommend. The movie isn’t an Oscar contender or anything of the sort, but it is a real good time and well worth making sure check out…
–Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!