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Indie Snapshot: Drinking Buddies

by Ethan Alter August 23, 2013 5:55 am
Indie Snapshot: <i>Drinking Buddies</i>

After seven years and some 14 features, Drinking Buddies marks prolific writer/director Joe Swanberg's inevitable graduation from no-budget mumblecore to low-budget indie. What's the difference between the two? Well, both are primarily focused on the relationship travails of attractive twenty and/or thirtysomethings and consist largely of the characters hanging out in a series of ordinary, nondescript locations -- bars, apartments and sterile offices -- yapping endlessly about their lives and loves. But where homegrown mumblecore features often star the filmmaker's friends and family and tend to wear their technical scruffiness like a badge of honor, indies use their ever-so-slightly higher budgets to present a more polished face to the world and attract professional actors looking to up their cred. That's precisely why Drinking Buddies, which otherwise mines some of the same dramatic territory as many of Swanberg's mumblecore flicks, is his glossiest-looking film to date and boasts his highest-profile ensemble of actors, including Olivia Wilde, Ron Livingston, Anna Kendrick and, best of all, Jake Johnson, who gets the feature film equivalent of his New Girl breakout turn here.

Filmed on location in Swanberg's usual stomping grounds of Chicago, Drinking Buddies pairs Wilde and Johnson as the employees at an up-and-coming craft beer company -- Kate (Wilde) works a desk job, while Luke (Johnson) does the hands-on grunt work on the factory floor -- who have an obvious romantic chemistry whenever they're in the same room. The only trouble is that they're both in relationships with other people: Kate is dating Chris (Livingston), a handsome, but dull square, while Luke has a long-term engagement (with no wedding date in sight) with Jill (Kendrick), a pretty, but shy wallflower. Where their respective partners prefer quiet evenings in, Luke and Kate feed off the raucous, beer-fueled after-hours nightlife at the watering hole by their headquarters. An impromptu double date weekend at Chris's lakeside cottage just further highlights the gulf that separates them from their designated romantic partners. While Jill and Chris avail themselves of the many outdoor activities offered by the location, Kate and Luke stay indoors, quaffing brew, building sandwiches and staying up to ungodly hours shooting the shit. And as much as they try to maintain the "just friends" fa├žade, it's obvious to both of them (if not their significant others) that there's something between them -- a palpable spark that could very quickly burst into a roaring flame.

Swanberg's M.O. with the movie, though, is to throw a wet blanket over that flame at every opportunity. Scene after scene finds the central duo almost acting on their attraction before fleeing back to their separate corners. The constant build-up and subsequent shrinkage of their romantic tension would be irritating if Wilde and especially Johnson weren't so enjoyable to hang out with, both together and apart. Mostly a gorgeous blank in mainstream studio-backed productions like TRON: Legacy and Cowboys & Aliens, Wilde demonstrates an easy, natural charisma here and effectively captures how Kate's free-spirited ways make her both the life of the party and a deeply frustrating person to be around. And while Luke initially seems like a bearded version of Nick Miller -- all affected sarcasm and constant shirking of grown-up responsibility -- Johnson reveals extra layers here, most notably a palpable anger that lurks beneath his easygoing exterior. (Stuck in the killjoy roles, Livingston and Kendrick don't have the same range of emotions to play, but they're appealing presences all the same.) Largely improvised as opposed to tightly scripted -- another trait that the film shares with Swanberg's mumblecore predecessors -- Drinking Buddies has a loose, but focused energy that wasn't always present in the director's previous work, which had a tendency to ramble on before a too-abrupt conclusion. In terms of its overall aesthetics and insights into male/female relationships, Drinking Buddies is by no means a revolutionary film, but it is an evolutionary one for its maker.

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