The trailer for Drinking Buddies goes down like something you’ve tasted a hundred times before, a rom com in which two couples somehow swap lovers and end up all the happier for it. Coming off more Hollywood than “mumblecore,” the preview makes you feel as though you know what you’re getting into — the tried-and-true altered just so much by indie influence, the cinematic equivalent of Blue Moon. But don’t trust the trailer. Drinking Buddies is better than that. It’s a comedy in the classic sense: not something calculated to punch out a guffaw or two, but a careful movie focused on the language of affection.
Our drinking buddies are Kate (Olivia Wilde) and Luke (Jake Johnson). Both work at a Chicago brewery. The former is the “face and voice” of the operation while the latter helps brew up the liquid bread. Together, our buddies are nearly insufferable bros. Outside of work, each has their own significant other, but on the job these two can hardly talk to each other without getting entangled in jokes, playful touches, and the joys of beer. Lots and lots of beer.
The drinking — at work, at bars, at home, at a vacation home — brings to mind Hemingway’s fiction in that much of what’s happening (emotionally) becomes apparent only between sips and words and giggles. The dialog, indeed, is a collision of fragments. Words bubble up out of characters in such a way that you feel like you’re eavesdropping on conversations. Exchanges are sloppy, but they reflect how people actually talk. And that’s the way writer/director Joe Swanberg wanted it. He reportedly told his actors what had to happen in a given scene, and then let them come up with the lines — on the fly. The resulting verbal realism in Drinking Buddies draws you in, and then the movie’s emotional conflicts and uncertainties keep its momentum going.
The chief catalyst for conflict in Drinking Buddies is a double-date weekend trip to the cabin of Kate’s boyfriend (Ron Livingston). He’s an inarticulate, seemingly intellectual gentleman who instantly takes a liking to Luke’s girlfriend (Anna Kendrick), a caring, creative creature with a heart of gold. While on Michigan’s lovely sand dunes, the drinking buddies knock back beers and play blackjack while their significant others go on a hiking trip through the woods. Things happen. A surprise kiss shatters boundaries while a late night skinny dip seemingly redefines old ones. By the time Sunday rolls around, everything’s up in the air.
The rest of the movie deals with the trip’s surprisingly gentle aftermath. Swanberg does some wonderful editing, cleverly hiding important plot information (like how — or if — a couple broke up) so that we watch tensely as Kate and Luke try to sort out what the apparent changes in romantic alliances mean for their ticklish relationship. The result is often moving, and the looseness of the entire project flows so effortlessly that the things you saw coming appear a surprise while those you didn’t seem totally natural, somehow expected.
It’s said that the best scripts don’t make the best films. And it seems we can twist that aphorism, in this case, to say that a good film doesn’t need too much of a script at all.
You can catch Drinking Buddies at Minneapolis’ Lagoon Theater.