Film Review: Drinking Buddies

A small-scale story about romantic communication failures, indie <i>auteur</i> Joe Swanberg&#8217;s latest lacks for forceful drama but compensates with an inviting, off-the-cuff atmosphere and strong lead performances.

Pints of beer are the constant amidst ever-shifting circumstances for two couples in Drinking Buddies, a relatively high-profile effort from prolific indie auteur Joe Swanberg (LOL, Hannah Takes the Stairs, Uncle Kent) that retains the director’s interest in interpersonal communication breakdowns.

Co-workers at a Chicago brewery, Kate (Olivia Wilde) and Luke (Jake Johnson) share a friendship that’s infused with more than a whiff of flirtatious tension. Theirs is a bond that seems predicated partly on an unspoken but mutual sexual interest in each other, even though platonic interaction is all that’s allowed given that Kate is dating Chris (Ron Livingston) and Luke is involved with Jill (Anna Kendrick). Such commitments, however, still don’t quell sparks from firing between Kate and Luke, considering that their current paramours come across as far from ideal fits, with Chris the liquor-and-books square to Kate’s beer-and-pool party gal, and Luke the bearded hipster goofball to Jill’s more reserved, go-home-early nice girl. From the get-go, a partner swap seems preordained.

Drinking Buddies embraces this schematic set-up as a vehicle for spending time with its characters, as well as a means of exploring how silences, sideways glances and casual asides reveal roiling emotions concealed just beneath respectable façades. For the most part, those feelings remain hidden as the four hang out, first at a party organized by Kate at the brewery, and then later during a weekend getaway at Chris’ family cabin—that is, until Chris and Jill go for a hike and picnic that ends with a kiss, and Kate and Luke stay up all night gabbing by a beach fire. During these early goings, Swanberg contrasts his characters with a tad too much obviousness, cutting back and forth between his protagonists in order to juxtapose the no-fun stuffiness of Chris and Jill with the boozy card-playing coolness of Kate and Luke. Fortunately, those clear-cut comparisons prove far messier once Chris dumps Kate, Jill leaves town on a trip to Costa Rica, and the frisson between Kate and Luke is given room to slowly blossom out in the open.

Though nothing immensely consequential happens during the course of Drinking Buddies, Swanberg crafts a conversational atmosphere that compensates for a lack of momentous drama. Much of that is due to his handheld camerawork—tracking alongside or behind walking characters, and panning back and forth between people in conversation, his cinematography assumes the POV of a silent, unseen participant in the revelry at hand. Despite the frequent (and somewhat grating) use of an indie-rock-ballad soundtrack, Swanberg’s off-the-cuff aesthetics do much to invite one into the action as a confidential spectator on private events. That warm, hospitable mood is also aided by natural lead performances that capture the painful, confusing awkwardness born from being forced—because of situations or more basic rules of decorum—to not act upon pressing desires. The result is an empathetic dramedy of social discomfort in which the unspoken is often what most needs to be said—at least until a canny final sequence of wordless détente which also proves that, for a friendship’s lasting health, silence is sometimes golden.