A film review by Craig J. Koban September 20, 2013 


2013, R, 90  mins.


Olivia Wilde as Kate  /  Jake Johnson as Luke  /  Anna Kendrick as Jill  /  Ron Livingston as Chris  /  Ti West as Dave  /  Mike Brune as Mike  /  Jason Sudeikis as Gene Dentler  /  Frank V. Ross as Frank  /  Joe Swanberg as Angry guy in car

Written and directed by Joe Swanberg

DRINKING BUDDIES seems to have its finger squarely on the pulse of how tricky and complicated modern male/female platonic relationships are.  Written and directed by Joe Swanberg – known for making ultra micro-budget dramas that utilize pervasive actor improvisation – the film chronicles a man and woman that both work at a brewery together and unavoidably have to deal with romantic feelings for one another, despite both being in serious relationships with someone else.  

That premise alone seems like it has been carved out of an untold number of previous romcoms, but Swanberg is more perceptive than most directors in the sense that he seems to really capture the flavor, nuance, and idioms of how real people in real situations behave and talk to one another.  He also captures with starling accuracy the awkwardness that often exists when friends want to take their relationship to the next level, but seem to fumble the ball at every attempt. 

The friends in question are Kate (Olivia Wilde) and Luke (Jake Johnson) and they both work at a Chicago-based brewery, where, for the most part, they seem to pass their respective idle time making modest chit-chat with one another…at least when they're not flirting.  Even though there is certainly an ethereal spark and connection between the two, Kate and Luke are nonetheless involved with other people; she’s with Chris (Ron Livingston) and Luke is with Jill (Anna Kendrick).  Chris and Jill seem like good people and Kate and Luke appear – superficially at least – to be happy and content with them.  Yet, there is no denying that Kate and Luke seem to have a rapport that borders on romantic and intimate; they just seem to be able to finish off each other’s sentences and know what makes the other tick.  They're essentially soul mates, but circumstance keeps them apart. 

Things become all the more complicated with a semi-impromptu trip that both sets of couples take together up to Chris’s family vacation home in Michigan.  Now, if DRINKING BUDDIES were to have an inherent weakness then it would be that this whole element of the plot kind of reeks of predictability.  There are no overt surprises as to what happens next: The somewhat dissatisfied Kate and Luke find themselves alone at one point, as do Jill and Chris, and you don’t have to be Nostradamus to foresee the future of these people.  Yet, as Kate and Luke struggle to deal with their increasing attraction to one another, they still manage to subjugate and internalize these feelings, which makes their already established – and relatively stable – platonic friendship grow more stressful by the moment. 



As stated, the plot here seems like it's straight out of a how-to romcom screenwriting playbook.  Yet, Swanberg manages to overcome the more overt contrivances of the story by infusing the film with such an endlessly naturalistic look and feel all the way through, which consequently makes DRINKING BUDDIES feel more authentically rendered.  I have read that he gave the actors no script to work off of, which essentially forced them to improv most of the scenes (they did, however, receive a basic guide as to how individual scenes would begin and end).  The effect here, I think, is that it lends a level of unpredictable edge to DRINKING BUDDIES that a more otherwise mechanically and dutifully written screenplay would have mustered.  Some critics have complained that the film seems to meander without much forward momentum, kind of aimlessly traversing from one unrelated scene to the next.  Yet, that’s precisely what makes DRINKING BUDDIES so unique: it’s trying to highlight the minutia of what occurs in Kate and Luke’s everyday and relatively humdrum lives.  Swanberg's goal is to encapsulate the small and random moments of relationships that often are not dictated by convenience or good timing.  DRINKING BUDDIES should appropriately feel loose and freewheeling as a result. 

At a cursory glance, Olivia Wilde may seem a bit unsuitable to play a salt-of-the-earth/everywoman type that is Kate.  Wilde is a seriously beautiful woman.  Yet, she somehow manages to effectively de-glam and immerse herself in her role to the point where you’re willing to wholeheartedly accept her as Kate.  Granted, even when stripped down from her cover girl luminosity, Wilde still is an endlessly alluring screen presence, but her performance is so poised, naturally relayed, and replete with such spontaneously quirky energy that you’re drawn to her infectious – and complicated - personality more than anything.  More crucially, Wilde imbues in the working-class Kate a level of world-weary uncertainty, emotionally vulnerability, and frequent selfishness that typifies her as she struggles to find a way through an increasingly problematic relationship with Luke.  This is a star making turn for the actress. 

Her thankless and well-oiled chemistry with Jake Johnson also helps to keep the film buoyantly afloat.  Johnson seems to have a real affinity for playing broad comedy and solemn drama, which is a difficult dichotomy for most performers to pull off confidently and effectively.  Yet, he manages to make Luke as intricately layered and compelling of a character as Kate, and his individual moments with Wilde are kind of small little gems of evoking how two people gel so well through the bond of their shared daily experiences.  Swanberg and his stars still manage to keep viewers at an uncomfortable distance and on edge throughout the film; just as DRINKING BUDDIES appears like its going to precisely tip off what will happen with Kate and Luke’s relationship, it then throws a curveball at us and throws audience members off balance.  

Despite the film’s conventional genre trappings, I really admired how DRINKING BUDDIES never ended...conventionally.  The real small scale triumph of the film is how Swanberg introduces us to these characters and then allows us to observe them in the tedium of their everyday existence without shamelessly pandering to audience expectations and desires.  The conclusion of the film – a perfectly envisioned and relatively dialogue-free moment between Kate and Luke – is brilliant for its ambiguity.  These are people that often stymie their happiness and friendship by the inappropriate things they try to verbally communicate to each other, so to end the film on a non-verbal confrontation seems right.  They manage to relay all of their feelings without saying anything while, at the same time, leaving viewers guessing as to what will come next.  

More often than not, I felt like I was witnessing real people and not the creations of a script all through DRINKING BUDDIES.  In the end, the question as to whether Kate and Luke will indeed end up together is almost superfluous; what really matters is the journey they take though the film as they try to sift through and eventually learn to deal with their irksome attraction to one another.  Few films capture the veracity of the daily digressions of friends struggling with escaping the friend-zone as assertively as DRINKING BUDDIES.  Yes, the film may have a skeletal-at-best screenplay and takes some predictable turns, but the manner it nails the emotional truth of Kate and Luke’s relationship woes is spot-on and handled by Swanberg with a cunning dexterity and understanding.  

  H O M E