MRR Review: "Drinking Buddies"

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Drinking Buddies is a 2013 American comedy film written and directed by Joe Swanberg, and starring Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick and Ron Livingston. The film is about two co-workers at a craft brewery in Chicago, who struggle with romantic feelings for one another despite both being in a relationship with someone else.
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MRR Review: "Drinking Buddies"

Rating: R (language)
Length: 90 minutes
Release Date: July 25, 2013
Directed by: Joe Swanberg
Genre: Comedy/Drama/Romance

Kate (Olivia Wilde) is an event planner and public relations manager for a Chicago brewery that is not only a bar and grill, but also a place where people come to have wedding receptions and big events. It's a busy job, but she still finds time to be the unofficial motherly figure to the motley crew of brewery workers, which includes her best friend Luke (Jake Johnson). They find time for banter and a little light flirting during business hours, displaying chemistry that is fairly off the charts, particularly for two people who are supposed to be nothing more than platonic friends.

The reason they don't get involved is because both of them are trying to nurture relationships with other people. Luke is involved with the sweet, slightly uptight schoolteacher named Jill (Anna Kendrick) who loves and appreciates Luke's laidback vibe. She isn't sure if he is the right fit long-term, but she is committed and willing to find out. Meanwhile, Kate is dating the slightly older and much more successful Chris (Ron Livingston), a neat freak who doesn't seem to connect with Kate on the same level as Luke.

The two couples decide to drive up to Michigan one weekend to take a mini vacation in a beautiful summer cabin there. Luke and Kate want to drink and relax in the cabin while Jill and Chris would rather hike and have romantic picnics. When Luke and Kate stay behind on one of these hikes, Jill and Chris begin to hit it off and are left wondering what the status of their current relationships should be. Though it seems like everyone is with the wrong person, a few emotional surprises are in store for this love quadrangle. This sets things up for the conclusion, which may not end quite how the audience anticipated it would at the beginning of the film.

Director Joe Swanberg has made a name for himself in what has been dubbed the "mumblecore" movie movement. "Mumblecore" is a word used to describe low-budget flicks that are largely focused on body language and dialogue instead of the action and special effects, and these types of films are widely prevalent today. Swanberg's previous efforts before "Drinking Buddies" looked at the day-to-day minutiae that make up human interactions, whether they be friendly, romantic, or in the case of Kate and Luke, both. He isn't afraid to take a warts-and-all approach to his filmmaking, showcasing tiny little details that don't seem to mean much on the surface but are actually riddled with meaning upon closer look. His films tend to be all talk and no action, and "Drinking Buddies" neatly fits that bill, despite the fact that is has a much larger budget and bigger name actors than all of his previous films.

Some may feel that Swanberg has sold out to the larger movie houses, but a close look at the film shows that he hasn't sold out at all. He stays true to his aesthetic, and the better production values that come with a bigger budget actually help make the film better than so many of his previous efforts. "Drinking Buddies" is well-lit, has a more cohesive script, and has multiple locations, which are all departures from the norm. He has also said in interviews that he doesn't always fully script a film, instead writing an outline and letting the actors fill in the blanks with their own dialogue. Though it is unknown just how much of "Drinking Buddies" may have been improvised by the cast, especially since the larger movie studios that Swanberg now works with would never green light a project without a proper script. However, the organic sound of the dialogue feels like large swaths of the dialogue may have been off the cuff.

No matter how much of the dialogue was improvisation, the cast is superb from top to bottom. Johnson, who has shot to stardom as the love interest in the quirky Fox comedy "New Girl," showcases another side to his acting. He portrays Luke with the type of ease that only actors who work really hard at making it look easy can truly achieve. Livingston puts in some of his best work since the cult classic "Office Space," and Kendrick is her usual great self. That leaves Wilde, who steals the show with her take on the free-spirited Kate. It's a fantastic standout performance that may finally get her the recognition she has long deserved as a lead actress. Swanberg is sure to get the mainstream recognition he deserves as well, though he hopefully won't leave his "mumblecore" roots behind.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars