'Drinking Buddies' captures messiness of life and love
05:00 AM, Aug 30, 2013
Awash in realistic dialogue, nuanced observations and plenty of beer, Drinking Buddies (*** ½ out of four; rated R; expanding Friday in select cities) is a low-key comedy that takes its time, while moving in intriguingly unexpected directions.
Director Joe Swanberg and a terrific ensemble cast imbue a simple story with authenticity and shambling charm.
It’s a meandering film that prompts the viewer to anticipate characters’ actions. Fortunately, they don’t take predictable paths.
Though it falls loosely into the romantic comedy category, it doesn’t adhere to the conventions of that formulaic genre. And while it also qualifies as mumblecore low-budget films with naturalistic performances and improvised dialogue often shot on hand-held cameras it transcends the familiar limitations of that indie construct.
Set mostly in a Chicago micro-brewery, the story explores a close friendship between the winsome Kate (Olivia Wilde) and her jovial co-worker and good pal Luke (Jake Johnson). It also offers an inside look at their respective romantic entanglements. Sometimes, it just follows brewery workers after hours at their favorite local bars, drinking, playing pool and shooting the breeze.
But the seeming lack of structure masks the essential truths it captures about the complexity and intimacy of human relationships.
With similar sensibilities and comic outlooks, Kate and Luke have a tight bond of friendship. They sit a little closer together than most platonic pals, but Luke lives with his perky girlfriend Jill (Anna Kendrick), a special-ed teacher who is angling for a marriage commitment. Jill’s apartment is neat and inviting, while Kate’s living space includes a half-eaten birthday cake left out for weeks after the party.
Kate is involved with a bookish music producer named Chris (Ron Livingston), but when the four of them go away to his family cabin in Michigan, a seismic shift seems to occur. Increasingly, their respective interests don’t match up. Awkwardness intersperses with camaraderie. Chris and Jill, both more introspective than their mates, prefer to hike, while Kate and Luke would rather hole up in the cabin, drink beer and play blackjack.
Generally, Kate and Luke get along with astonishing ease. Their sexual tension is palpable. But Luke also has an affable comfort and powerful affection for the sweet-natured Jill. Love comes in different shapes and sizes. It can also take a circuitous path or go unacknowledged through missed opportunities.
Where all these romantic and platonic bonds lead is ultimately secondary to the charming and believable path the film takes, with its intriguing detours and byways. What’s most striking is the film’s pervasive sense of honesty.
Kate, the central character, is endearing and funny, one of the guys despite her delicate beauty. She’s easy to root for. But she’s also infuriating and self-involved. Each of the four main characters is a similarly fully realized person, with attendant charms and foibles. We think we know who should be with whom as well as when and how. But, life is never that clear-cut. If this were a Hollywood rom-com there would be a predictable climactic “you had me at hello” moment. But, fortunately, this is not one of those movies.
Like Kate’s haphazardly sloppy apartment, nothing about this story is tidy because emotions rarely are. And it’s that ambiguity that makes Drinking Buddies ring true.