Review: Three Cheers for 'Drinking Buddies'

Drinking Buddies

It wasn't so long ago that a movie like Drinking Buddies -- low-budget, low-key, focusing on the romantic/career travails of moderately well-to-do young urban whites -- was the kind of thing you might bring home from the video store after dark (and a reluctant sigh) on a Friday. It has the look of the type of film that used to be the exclusive domain of actors like Craig Sheffer and Parker Posey -- just smart enough to keep you interested for 80 or so minutes, and just aimless enough to earn a direct-to-video release.

These days, the line between "theatrical release" and "theatrical quality" has been blurred beyond recognition, and the result is that even though you might look at Drinking Buddies' poster and blanch at the memory of rental fees lost to low-grade exercises in '90s indie cinema, it's actually got a lot more going for it.

Not that you'd necessarily know that from looking at the trailer or the synopsis. Written, directed, produced, and edited by the indefagitable Joe Swanberg -- who finished a mind-boggling seven movies in 2010 alone -- Drinking Buddies tells the tale of Chicago brewery employees Kate (Olivia Wilde) and Luke (Jake Johnson), co-workers and friends who would probably also be lovers if they weren't already involved with other people.

Watch the trailer and you'll know that Kate's relationship with Chris (Ron Livingston) hits a few snags over the course of the film, as does Luke's with Jill (Anna Kendrick); where the promo clip errs is in trying to present the movie as a dramedy about couples changing partners, which it really isn't. This is not to say that boundary lines aren't tested, just that Drinking Buddies has more on its mind than your average rom-com.

That last sentence might make Buddies sound like a thoughtful treatise on modern romance, and it really isn't that either -- but it does benefit hugely from the cast's loose chemistry, and Swanberg's naturalistic dialogue. Swanberg tends to get lumped in with the mumblecore movement, and Drinking Buddies is a good example of why he doesn't really fit the bill; although the movie's full of tossed-off-seeming moments, it rests on a far more rigidly familiar framework than, say, Tiny Furniture.

There's a certain amount of formula at work here, in other words, but Swanberg uses it smartly, as a fuel to propell narrative momentum and keep Drinking Buddies from sliding into the talk-driven abyss that swallows up so many of its ilk. He also proves himself an adept storyteller here; you can see what's coming for Wilde and Livingston from a mile away, but it feels sadly inevitable rather than cliched, and Swanberg nimbly shifts the audience's alliegance throughout the picture -- these characters are complicated, and he has the courage to let them all be unlikable in their fashion.

He's aided and abetted by some subtly powerful performances from a terrific cast. Wilde, who co-produced, is particularly great -- she delivers a relaxed but vibrant performance that suggests a wide and not altogether pleasant valley of experience behind her character's eyes. Wilde has a marvelously expressive face -- her work here underscores the tragedy of the largely thankless roles (and often cruddy projects) she's been trapped in until now.

As Luke, Johnson is equally compelling; although the character as written is little more than your average "goofball buddy with hidden depths" role, he invests it with a quiet warmth that invests some of the movie's more obvious moments with genuine emotion. Kendrick also makes the most of rather limited screen time, imbuing a handful of terrifically awkward scenes with palpably uncomfortable energy, and Jason Sudeikis is funny in a perfectly sized minor supporting role.

The result is a movie that may not have anything particularly profound to say, but one with a handful of minor-key statements about life and love to offer -- statements that should resonate with anyone struggling to navigate that treacherous territory between love and friendship, or who can remember a time when they felt lost along the way.

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About Jeff Giles

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Jeff is an entertainment writer and editor whose work currently appears at a variety of sites, including Rotten Tomatoes, Paste, American Songwriter, Popdose, Dadnabbit, Diffuser, and Ultimate Classic Rock.

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