Nobody gets lost in space in Drinking Buddies, nor are there any scenes of kidnap, torture or Wall Street greed. Banks aren’t robbed and celebrity homes aren’t ransacked and nobody reaches toward the blinking green light at the end of Daisy’s dock.
There are no fast cars or folk singers and this isn’t the story of a butler or some other biopic. It isn’t a tale of courage under fire unless you count the courage it takes to know who you are, who you want and open yourself up enough to fall in love.
Nor are there any slaves in writer/director/editor Joe Swanberg’s fully improvised ensemble comedy, unless you consider the quartet of characters it follows in its romantic round-robin of confusion, temptation and flirtation slaves of the heart.
If so, then we’re all guilty of that label as Swanberg’s film – like the ones that came before it and Nights and Weekends in particular – is preoccupied with love and as such he realizes that unlike the romantic comedies that Hollywood churns out by the dozens each year, the best way to capture a beating heart is to accurately reflect the human in which it resides.
And this is precisely what he does in his true-to-life (as in "You Are Here" Cinema) documentation of four twenty to thirty-somethings who are coupled up… perhaps with the wrong partner, although Swanberg is wise enough to know that there may not be just one right partner for each person and explores that fully in Drinking's ninety-minute running time.
In one of 2013’s greatest romantic movies not named Before Midnight, we’re introduced to our two leads Kate and Luke (played by Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson) as they go about their day wisecracking and working together at Chicago’s Revolution Brewery.
When we meet Kate and Luke, we initially think we're being given the classic ingredients of a romantic comedy in the representation of the characters. But while these two friends essentially embody the 21st century term “work spouse” by finishing each other’s sentences, they also click with each other chemically on a sidekick level – like Vaughn and Favreau in Swingers or Damon and Affleck in Good Will Hunting but with the added possibility of Hepburn and Tracy sex.
Yet Swanberg has enough respect for both the audience and his characters not to cheapen the plot with corner cutting -- daring to introduce us to the unmarried significant others of both leads in the form of Anna Kendrick and Ron Livingston, thus making them so damn likable you don’t want anyone to get hurt.
Throughout the film, he flirts with genre contrivances like a shared kiss between two otherwise attached characters, a one night stand, a fight in the street and questions of romantic timing with regard to a breakup and a trip similar to the way the characters flirt in their own right.
But Swanberg employs all of the elements in an unexpected and postmodern way, understanding – just like the Before trilogy – that real life is much more difficult to maneuver and that while we may be presented with windows, we’re the ones that have to make things happen rather than just hoping we’re in the right place to experience fireworks at the right time.
Using a heightened sense of reality that cinematically seems to hark back to the late ‘60s and early ‘70s era of provocative partner switchers like Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice and the bittersweet sting of laughing so hard you could cry or crying so hard you could laugh of Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Swanberg’s seasoned cast of veterans bring the method to the masses.
And throughout Drinking Buddies, the flirtatious, feisty and downright funny foursome make the pace fly right by thanks to their fully realized, fresh, fiercely relatable and yes, (at times) slightly intoxicated performances as people unsure how to handle the feeling of their hearts being pulled in two directions at once.
Easily identifiable to the point that the authenticity of Drinking Buddies rings even truer than Before’s one falsely dissonant note of Julie Delpy’s over-dramatic monologuing in the third-act of Richard Linklater’s otherwise brilliant trilogy-ender, Buddies features breakout turns by the witty and wondrous Olivia Wilde and a sensitive, deeply nuanced portrayal of the unenviable frustration of a heart too full of love by Jake Johnson.
One of the best romantic comedies since Ira & Abby and the strongest of Swanberg’s career so far, Drinking Buddies which also offers worthwhile supporting turns from Jason Sudeikis and Ti West may be a sleeper now but it’s only a matter of time before viewers realize that instead of a one-night stand, in 2013’s Buddies, they’ve found long-lasting love.
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