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Movie Review: Drinking Buddies

September 1, 2013
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The poster declares the theme of the film to be “knowing when to say when,” which is as good a summation as any, and has just the right amount of vagueness for an indie film. In this case the “when” applies to, well, I’m not entirely sure — on the surface it’s when to draw the line at casual flirting. Or when to break up with a partner who’s coasting through the relationship. Or when to grow up — a theme that’s driven far too many indie films.

That lack of understanding is probably my fault, but it may also be director Joe Swanberg’s intent. This is the same guy who made Silver Bullets, a film that made me want to abort fully developed children, mainly because it meandered through the running time with no direction, no story, and a mass of sickly dialogue that wanted to sound fresh and spontaneous but came off as fully self-aware. He tries a similar approach in Drinking Buddies, but it works infinitely better here. The actors improvise their dialogue, with an outline of the major plots points to guide them. I think that works best whenever the characters have an uncomfortable pause, but aside from that there is an easiness to their interactions. Granted, it should be simple for anyone to sell an attraction to Olivia Wilde.

The setup is that Kate (Wilde) works at a Chicago brewery, entertaining clients, sneaking pints, and casually flirting with her co-worker Luke (Jake Johnson). They have the kind of rapport that, at another time, would lead them to date, sleep with each other, and then lose that spark. The difference is that now both of them are in relationships, Kate with Chris (Ron Livingston) and Luke with Jill (Anna Kendrick). Of course that doesn’t prevent their behavior toward each other from sometimes going over the line.

And it’s an interesting idea to look at a failing relationship from the perspective of the person(s) causing it, but that’s not quite the direction Swanberg takes it. Instead, he introduces a contrived situation to put the audience’s sympathy on Kate and Luke’s side — fortunately, it’s here where the movie picks up.

The two are free to explore their feelings for each other, and Kate’s lack of focus and complacency drives the best scenes. Credit is due to Wilde, who downplays her exotic sultriness and pulls off the good-looking tomboy very well, It’s not the freshest idea, but there’s an authenticity to it, particularly in a scene where Luke explodes at Kate for shrugging off a date they had planned. The miasma of emotions, frustrations, and energy make the entire film worth watching not because it’s loud and explosive, but because it’s believable — after all the time spent with these two, I was wondering if their relationship would actually pay off, and in that scene, they definitively give an answer.

In all, it’s a good watch — good performances, decent characters, and it has something to say — even if it’s not totally sure of what that is.

Rating: 3.5/5

Drinking Buddies is rated R. Directed by Joe Swanberg. Written by Joe Swanberg. Starring Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick, and Ron Livingston.

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