Movie Recommendation: Drinking Buddies

Movie Recommendation: Drinking Buddies

After an impromptu Netflix binge of the Fox sitcom New Girl lead me into a deep dive of Jake Johnson’s filmography, I stumbled across the work of director/writer/actor, Joe Swanberg (the two really go hand in hand, but more on that in a bit). At just 35 years-old, Swanberg already has a pretty extensive resume and is known as one of the pioneering indie-filmmakers in the mumblecore movement of the early 2000s.

Now, until I watched Swanberg’s 2013 film, Drinking Buddies, I was completely oblivious to the fact that mumblecore was, like, an actual thing that existed; but with further research, I learned that this subgenre is very real in the independent film community, and this particular style happens to be Swanberg’s bread and butter. Mumblecore movies can be characterized by their heavy use of dialogue and improvisation, limited to non-existent soundtracks, real-life settings, low production values, and micro-budgets. While the overall lack of grandeur sets a certain amount of limitations for these films, the obvious constraints lead to naturalistic acting, and the films themselves generally explore relatable and existential stories.

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Drinking Buddies is often cited as Swanberg’s breakout film, and like many it’s mumblecore contemporaries, it tends to favor dialogue over plot. This is not a slight. In fact, I’d argue that the emphasis on dialogue that feels vivid and real is the primary reason that this movie was really able to strike a chord with audiences. That’s why I’m drawn to this film (that, and the endless flow of craft beer drank from really nice pint glasses). Drinking Buddies focuses on the relationship of Kate (Olivia Wilde) and Luke (Jake Johnson), who are co-workers at a craft brewing company in Chicago. The romantic chemistry between Wilde’s and Johnson’s characters is evident from the onset, and the two show very early on that they have way more in common with eachother than they do with their significant others. Luke is dating Jill (Anna Kendrick), who is pushing their relationship closer to marriage, and Kate is dating Chris (Ron Livingston), who still doesn’t seem to be all in after eight months together. Without giving too much of the story away, the couples go on a trip to Chris’ family’s cottage and all end up confronting their issues head-on.

It’s essentially an hour and a half of sexual tension, but what’s so interesting about Drinking Buddies is how it moves through a series of seemingly unconnected scenes — like going from Jill and Chris hiking and talking about their respective relationships to Luke teaching Kate how to play blackjack — and tells a concrete story by the end of its running time. It’s not your typical rom-com “happily ever after,” but the film does end on a positive note depending on what you take from the story. It’s hopeful, and the end product is a true testament to the talent of the film’s phenomenal cast and Swanberg’s direction. There was no script for Drinking Buddies; just guidelines to help the actors improvise and hit all the major beats of the story.

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This film fits snugly into Swanberg’s pocket. It’s his sweet spot, and as his output’s become more prolific, he’s gotten the opportunity to move from using lesser-known actors (himself included) to being able to play with the big movie studios’ shiner, more expensive toys. Wilde and Johnson really carry Drinking Buddies and command the screen every second either one of them is in frame. It’s not just the dialogue they come up with, but the conversation dynamic’s they’re able to capture with nonverbal cues. There’s lots of touching, taking shit out of eachother’s hair, always sitting really close; if they didn’t speak the whole movie you’d still be able to see the sparks. Drinking Buddies really thrives on the ambiguity of Kate and Luke’s intentions in these moments, leading the audience to have to make inferences on their own. You are absolutely positive something is going to happen until it doesn’t, and the movie keeps you on the edge of your seat and off guard because of it.

Swanberg’s projects always tend to focus on the same kinds of themes: relationships, sex, career choices. They’re stories about adults that are still coming-of-age, which is very human and great for anyone that gravitates to stories that are grounded in reality. Drinking Buddies available for purchase online or can be streamed on Netflix at you convenience.

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