Although perhaps a little bit more commercially minded than his cheaply produced, almost verite, largely improvised mumblecore dramas, Joe Swanberg’s Drinking Buddies takes the same unforced and loose approach as the writer/director/editor/actor’s other creative endeavours and crafts a gentle, sweetly realized look at love and friendship. It’s not a departure for Swanberg by any stretch, but a good entry point for anyone curious about his other work and a solid entry into the filmography of one of the hardest working craftsmen today.
Kate (Olivia Wilde) and Luke (Jake Johnson) are best buddies working together at a Chicago area brewery. They’re the kind of friends who don’t have very many secrets between each other, share a bunch of in jokes no one else would probably find funny, and would bail each other out at the drop of a hat. They flirt constantly, suggesting they were pretty much made for each other, but both have significant others in their lives. Kate has been seeing record producer Chris (Ron Livingston) for a while now, but he seems more into the relationship than she does. Luke has been firmly dating Jill for several years, and she’s getting antsy about moving forward with their chronically impending and often delayed marriage.
While still just as freewheeling and organic as other Swanberg efforts, the director has been able to find more of a budget for this one (comparatively speaking, of course) film, and he ends up showing that great commercial filmmaking that can appeal to pretty much everyone doesn’t have to be rocket science. It’s an indie through and through, but one with a universal appeal that most of these kinds of projects lack. It’s not that he’s using more ambitious techniques or that he has a better camera, cast, and technical equipment. It’s still the same kind of film he’s been making his entire career, but someone saw this project for the further reaching appeal that it has. He stays just as far out of the way of his actors and their creation of these characters as he did in films like Silver Bullets and this year’s equally intriguing and thoughtful All the Light in the Sky. No matter the subject matter or the characters within Swanberg’s world, there’s always a great warmth to his productions that few working directors can capture. With this one it’s probably most obvious because friendship and romance are two extremely warm things to talk about. As a filmmaker he manages to be both an iconoclast and a humanist, and here he finally makes the move towards more mainstream fare without compromising everything he’s hoped to achieve in the past.
Swanberg has always been able to get the most out of his actors, and here he finds himself with an embarrassment of riches. Johnson always has a natural charm that he brings to his roles that makes him perfect casting for a best friend type. He’s the guy who will always bust your balls and/or chops, but he always brings it back around to caring for the well being of those closest to him. He brings a sense of realism that only a truly good natured smartass can muster. Wilde similarly does a great job as the constantly fleeing and guarded, but socially open Kate. She might seem like a contradiction, but that’s exactly how people who can’t be open about their feelings act.
The supporting work is also strong thanks to Kendrick and Livingston playing equally likeable people in sometimes uncomfortable situations. Both are fighting stagnation in their relationships, although Kendrick gets to play happy, but confused and Livingston with the slowly growing realization that things probably won’t end well. They’re consummate pros who could have handled the leads on their own, but they generously cede to Johnson and Wilde at every turn, which is hard to do within a largely improvisational structure that could sometimes lead to selfishness. Instead of trying to steal scenes, they ground them.
One would fear that given the lighter and more wide ranging audience appeal that the film would start to give in to genre conventions and predictability, but the production never sells out, instead crafting a genuine and heartfelt look at friendship instead of contrived romance by doing more of a close reading of Kate and Luke as buddies rather than romantic interests. It’s arguably a far more powerful message and the film overall is better for it. It proves unequivocally that Swanberg has been able to pull off anything he sets his mind to without bending to convention. Let’s hope it’s a trend that continues for quite some time.