[DRINKING BUDDIES opens in Cleveland on Friday, September 13th exclusively at the Capitol Theatre.]
Review by Pamela Zoslov
Joe Swanberg is one of the movement's leading practitioners. His HANNAH TAKES THE STAIRS, starring mumblecore queen Greta Gerwig as a recent college grad who can't decide between two male co-workers, falls into the “barely tolerable home movies” category, though like Swanberg's other films, it has its fans. Swanberg's newest film, DRINKING BUDDIES, is vastly more accomplished, though still marked by less than brilliant camera work and the halting, uncertain style of actors thinking up what to say next.
A side note about improvisation in film, a scourge wrought by John Cassavetes. As critic John Simon observed, writers are writers because they can imagine and invent; actors' skill is in mimesis, or imitation. Asking actors to invent a screenplay while on camera is almost always problematic. (One exception is Mike Leigh, whose method is to work out dialogue in a series of improvisations, the best of which are then written into the final script).
So DRINKING BUDDIES, a small romantic drama, has a lot of patience-trying scenes that require the audience to watch the characters converse aimlessly and trivially at bars and parties. But it also features an actual story, some good, naturalistic acting, and a certain amount of character insight. It resembles in structure, if not in writing quality, a Woody Allen film in which two couples intersect, uncouple and recouple.
The film focuses on Kate (pretty, feline-eyed Olivia Wilde), a manager at a Chicago brewery who relishes being “one of the guys” among the crew. Alcohol is the medium through which the co-workers bond, and Kate prides herself on being able to out-drink her colleagues every night at The Empty Bottle (which the gang calls “The Bottle.”) She is especially close with the bearded brewer Luke (Jake Johnson), her best friend and the man who seems to understand her best.
Although Kate is in a relationship with the patient, good-looking Chris (Ron Livingston), she remains noncommittal. Drinking with her brewery mates is her top priority; after a night out with the boys, she rides her bike to Chris' place, sleeps with him, and takes off in the middle of the night, brushing off Chris' plea that she spend the night. She's a narcissist who enjoys the attention her beauty attracts, but has little to give in return. Her life, her apartment (and, no doubt, her liver), are a mess.
Luke loves Kate but understands the limits of her character, which may be why he's chosen a relationship with her opposite, the sweet, gentle Jill (mousy-cute Anna Kendrick), a special education teacher who is the grounded counterbalance to Kate's chaos. Jill and Luke are discussing marriage, with dialogue that sounds entirely natural (“It'll have to be the right time, when we're not so slammed.”)
The couples vacation together in Chris' woodland cabin and, as often happens at sylvan retreats, fissures appear in the two relationships. Kate and Luke play endless drinking games together, and Chris and Jill go on a hiking excursion, during which they momentarily explore a mutual attraction.
When Chris' grows tired of Kate's non-participation in their relationship, Kate is left single. She responds with defiance, challenging her drinking buddies to celebrate with her. “I'm free! The shackles are off!” she declares. Yet her pride is clearly wounded. She manipulates Luke, who wants to go home after work, into drinking with her. (“You owe me a beer. One fucking beer.”). Of course, with Kate and crew, there's no such thing as just one beer; the amount of drinking these characters do is astounding. Kate spends most of her workday behind dark, hangover-concealing sunglasses.
With Jill away on a trip, Luke agrees to the ultimate friendship test, helping Kate move to a new apartment. In this sequence, Kate's selfishness is magnified. When Luke's hand is horribly injured, Kate's chief concern is whether his blood will stain her upholstery. And she chooses to go out drinking with another brewer rather than having dinner with Luke. “We had plans,” Luke admonishes her like the child she is.“That's what humans do.”
The film is effective as a character study of a beautiful narcissist and the people on her periphery. Wilde does what she can with the limited writing, though improvisation is probably not her greatest strength. Kendrick is always enjoyable, and Jason Sudeikis shows up in an uncredited role that barely registers. The film's real standout is Jake Johnson, who looks and sounds like a real and recognizable person. 2 3/4 out of 4 stars.