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Catching Up on 2013: Drinking Buddies

Written and directed by Joe Swanberg, Drinking Buddies has a phenomenal cast and a great premise.  Set in the world of micro-breweries, the film charts the romantic, beer-fueled entanglements of four friends.  Kate (Olivia Wilde) and Luke (Jake Johnson) work together at a small craft brewery, and the two have a tight friendship and a wonderful flirtatious energy.  To the audience it is immediately clear that these two would be a fantastic match.  But both are seeing other people.  Luke has a long-time girlfriend, Jill (Anna Kendrick), while Kate has recently started dating a slightly older man, Chris (Ron Livingston).  Will a weekend the four spend together up at Chris’ family’s cottage in the woods solidify or shatter these various friendships and romantic relationships?

Drinking Buddies is a very different movie than I was expecting it to be, and while that is totally on me, I had a hard time shaking that dissatisfaction as I watched the film.  I was expecting a raucous, fun comedy — the film equivalent of a happy-go-luck, booze-filled night out with buddies.  But the film is a far more serious, painful story of unfulfilling relationships.  It’s the film equivalent of the sad, lonely morning after.

As a rich character study, the film succeeds wildly.  And don’t get me wrong, there are definitely some laughs.  But for most of the run-time the film is an unflinchingly honest, often-painful look at a series of flawed people who are all flailing about, trying to figure out what (and who) they want.  I spent the movie rooting for Luke and Kate to realize that they are perfect for one another, but if you go in expecting the type of happy ending that romantic comedies will provide, you’re going to be sorely disappointed.

Personally, I have strongly mixed feelings about this.  I love that Drinking Buddies eschews the usual, stupid romantic comedy plot-developments.  And I applaud Mr. Swanberg’s creation of a film that is far more honest and real.  In that he succeeded with great skill.  But damn would I have preferred a little more lightness, a little more happiness, particularly in the ending.

The cast is uniformly phenomenal.  Anna Kendirck and Ron Livingston are, I feel, reliably great.  (I just wish Mr. Livingston was in more of the film.  Of the four leads, he gets by far the least amount of screen time.)  While Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson are certainly big names and very successful actors at this point, I have never clicked in to their previous performances the way I did with both of them in this film.  Well, I did quite enjoy Mr. Johnson in Safety Not Guaranteed (click here for my review), but that was a much smaller role.  But he’s phenomenal here, so honest and flawed and conflicted.  You spend much of the film living in Luke’s head, and Mr. Johnson conveys so much without words, just his look and his posture and what we can see on his face and in his eyes.  Meanwhile, there’s Olivia Wilde who has been, in most of the films I have seen her in before now, well, rather wooden.  That’s not necessarily all her fault, a lot of it has had to do with her roles.  But I can’t say that her work in Cowboys and Aliens (click here for my review) or Tron: Legacy (click here for my review) was all that impressive.  But here she is marvelously alive and vibrant.  We can see why Luke is smitten by her, but she’s not just an object of his affection.  The film delves deeply into exploring her character, and I found myself loving Kate while also being extremely frustrated by the mistakes we see this confused young woman make, repeatedly, over the course of the film.  She’s a fascinating character, and Ms. Wilde is so good in the role I was really blown away.

So there’s a lot to recommend about Drinking Buddies, but I can’t help but feel dissatisfied at the ending.  Maybe that makes me less of a cinefile, that I craved a happier ending.  Oh well.  This is still a fascinating slice-of-life film about an eventful few weeks in the lives of several young friends, and it’s a great piece of work by all of the actors involved and writer/director Joe Swanberg.  I like the film more with my head than I do with my heart.

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