Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson in Drinking Buddies (Magnolia Pictures)

Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson in Drinking Buddies (Magnolia Pictures)

Edited, Written & Directed by Joe Swanberg
Produced by Paul Bernon, Sam Slater, Andrea Roa, Swanberg & Alicia Van Couvering
Released by Magnolia Pictures
USA. 90 min. Rated R
With Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick & Ron Livingston

Joe Swanberg, besides being one of the most prominent directors of the micro-budgeted independent films known as mumblecore, is also notable for being incredibly prolific—16 features in eight years, six in 2011 alone. The ubiquity of his films is such that Drinking Buddies is not even his newest film but only the latest to see release; the erotic thriller 24 Exposures is currently touring festivals. Many of Swanberg’s films (which he also often acts in) feature characters navigating the perilous waters of romantic and sexual relationships, shot with very small crews and cast with a tight circle of close friends and artistic collaborators. Swanberg’s artistic progression has been quite fascinating to watch, as his rough-hewn aesthetic has become ever more refined, intimate, and dramatically potent.

Drinking Buddies sees Swanberg expanding his canvas considerably, in both budgetary and artistic terms. There are much more recognizable names in his cast than in his previous films: Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick, Ron Livingston, and Jason Sudeikis in a smaller role. The visuals are more dynamic than usual, the cinematography this time handled by Ben Richardson, who previously shot Beasts of the Southern Wild. Swanberg’s greater resources here have not diluted or compromised his artistic vision one iota. If anything, they put in greater relief his skill at creating funny and affecting films using the improvisational methods that he has employed from the beginning of his career. The result is a refreshingly non-cliché take on the romantic comedy, and one of Swanberg’s very best works to date.

The “drinking buddies” of the title are Kate (Olivia Wilde) and Luke (Jake Johnson), who are co-workers at a Chicago craft brewery. Kate handles event planning, publicity, and client relations, while Luke is in the trenches making the beer. As longtime friends, they have an easy rapport and spend many nights after work hanging out in local bars with their co-workers. In fact, they could easily be romantic partners as well. But there’s a problem: they’re both in relationships with other people. Kate is with Chris (Ron Livingston) and Luke is with Jill (Anna Kendrick). Interestingly, their respective partners both come across as more stable and responsible adults than Luke or Kate, if somewhat more staid and less fun-loving.

Luke and Jill’s relationship is more long-term and serious—they have had discussions about getting married—while Kate and Chris seem to be much more casual partners. Kate and Luke’s respective partners are introduced to each other at a company reception, and soon after the four of them go away on a retreat to Chris’s lakeside cabin. They hang out together at first, but it isn’t long before they pair off, Luke and Kate drinking and playing cards while Chris and Jill go hiking and have a small picnic. The result of this swapped-partners getaway is a major turning point, in which the dissatisfactions present in both relationships, as well as the unspoken yet quite potent attraction that Kate and Luke have for each other, reach a crisis point.

Drinking Buddies has a pleasing, off-the-cuff feel that eschews the contrived plotting of most romantic comedies, a genre which, in any case, this film only very superficially resembles. Swanberg’s method of working without traditional scripts and allowing the actors to fully participate in creating their characters reaps great dividends in giving us wonderfully realistic-feeling moments that are all the more effective for not being forced to fit into a pre-ordained structure. All these characters’ interactions, often lubricated with copious amounts of alcohol, are given very fascinating psychological and emotional shadings which provide a considerable amount of depth that hints at the melancholic undertow to its comic surface.