Drinking Buddies (film review)
Drinking Buddies (2013) Magnolia Pictures
1 hr. 30 mins.
Starring: Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick, Ron Livingston, Jason Sudeikis, Ti West
Directed by: Joe Swanberg
MPAA Rating: R
Critic’s rating: *** stars (out of 4 stars)
Writer-director Joe Swanberg’s blue-collar Drinking Buddies is a low-key, smart and observant comedy about the blurred boundaries between the platonic relationship of the opposite sexes and the underlining currents of romantic attraction as a hidden nerve. Swanberg (“Hannah Takes the Stairs”) is exploring familiar territory with the undefined nature of male/female buddy-style bonds but he is also taking into account the daily lives of working stiffs going through the motions of every day survival. Although conveying similar themes to Nora Ephron’s When Harry Met Sally there should not be an automatic dismissal on the earthy quirkiness impact of Drinking Buddies either.
The protagonists in Drinking Buddies work, play, jump in and out of the dating scene and look forward to the leisure moments when handling beer in the evening hours takes on a whole new meaning than working at a Chicago microbrewery in the daytime. Refreshingly, Drinking Buddies presents its premise of slightly aimless thirty-something brewery workers as an interesting character study of stagnation. Still, this does not mean that the on-screen participants in Swanberg’s astute dramedy are defeatists in life and love. After all, if nothing else materializes then at the end of the day they can hover around that old pastime of having a cold one at the end of a tedious shift.
Boasting a typical Tinsel Town romantic comedy set-up, Drinking Buddies introduces us to Kate (Olivia Wilde)—the sole female employee at the aforementioned Chicago microbrewery where she works. Kate is extremely pretty but she is literally one of the guys courtesy of her easy-going sense of humor not to mention her mentality of swilling down brew with the boys whenever possible. In particular, Kate shares a special connection with one of her co-workers in prankster Luke (Jake Johnson from TV’s “New Girl”). Heavily bearded and wearing his signature dingy baseball cap, Luke is a tool and has this on-going need to playfully nag Kate. Together Kate and Luke seem to share an off-kilter vibe as close, inseparable buddies.
Finally, Kate and Luke get a golden change to briefly get away from the wind-and-grind at the brewery and enjoy their trip to Kate’s mature book smart record producer boyfriend Chris’s (Ron Livingston) cabin in the woods. As Kate is coupled with Chris it appears as Luke’s long-time special-ed teacher girlfriend Jill (Anna Kendrick) is tagging along with him. So best buddies Kate and Luke and their companions are snuggled together in the woods for some much needed frolicking. However, this venture to the cabin would prove mighty revealing for the unsuspecting foursome.
Predictably, Kate and Luke continue their nutty teasing with each other and eventually find themselves at the lake in front of a nighttime roaring fire when alone. Earlier in the day the more serious-minded Chris and Jill—while hiking through the wilderness—have a meaningful conversation which leads to an impromptu kiss. The stage is set—beer-guzzling jokesters Kate and Luke feel more at ease with each other than their love interests Chris and Jill whom seem just as in sync with one another, too.
Jill, harboring a little bit of guilt regarding her smooch with Chris, needs to get away for a while leaving an unsuspecting Chris in their apartment alone. As for Kate, she is informed by the literate Chris that he wants out of their relationship and does not foresee anything in their romantic future at all. Feeling numb and confused, Kate relies on her drinking buddies to help ease the pain of Chris’s rejection of her. Luke, noting how hurt she is by her failed relationship, notices how flirtatious Kate is with fellow co-worker Dave (Ti West) at the local pub. Kate’s inebriated attention towards Dave sets off an untapped dosage of envy inside him. After all, why is she cuddling up to Dave and acting goofy around him…that is what he specializes in with her during and after working hours. Could Luke be displaying a case of the jealousy jolts aimed at Dave which in fact has triggered his disappointment in Kate?
Kate is bewildered at Luke’s odd and distant behavior directed at her. Thankfully, her admission that Dave not being her “object of affection” softens the resentment that Luke had against Kate. Soon, all is well with the cliquey co-workers and it is monkey business as usual between them. Listening to music (and yes…beer drinking AGAIN) draws Kate and Luke even closer but the romantic sparks are still buried. When Luke offers his services to move Kate out of her old apartment this leads to the returning angst and edginess. Luke’s injury during the moving—and a heated physical altercation with an impatient driver—intensifies as both friends feel kind of edgy towards one another. When Kate enlists the services of Dave and the other guys to help complete the moving process and in return she is eager to hang out with them later on this frustrates Luke to no end. Kate promised some alone time with Luke but she is in favor of joining the others. Some unkind words are tossed around. Kate sarcastically quips that Luke should just go home to his girlfriend Jill and not dictate to her whom she prefers to spend time with sexual or otherwise. Is this the realization that Kate and Luke needed to reveal what their true feelings are beyond exchanging childish slaps and drowning in countless mugs of alcohol?
Drinking Buddies works because it is truthful about its complicated entanglements between the friendship of the sexes and the presentable expectations that are uncertain. Convincing and relatable performances by Wilde and Johnson as the close-knit comrades that are blinded by the possibilities that they could indeed be each other’ s true soul-mates brings this unlikely romantic comedy its perceptive stroke. Kendricks’s exceptional turn as the guilt-ridden Jill is brilliantly realized.
The 90-minute Drinking Buddies is worth toasting as a resourceful profile of real Midwestern 9-to-5ers figuring out their mundane day-to-day strategies with kegs of beer that serve as their professional and personal salvation.
So bottoms up to those that can find the fine print on the dotted line in the rules of roguishness clashing with romanticism.
NOTE: Focus of New York film critic Frank Ochieng is a member of: