To exist is to crave companionship. From the earliest stages of our lives, we witness and are told explicitly and implicitly—by our parents, our neighbors, Disney films, television commercials—that to find a soul-mate, someone who you can share the whole of your being with, is what humanity has come to accept as the meaning of life. This idea of a loving, monogamous relationship is the driving force for the characters of Joe Swanberg’s latest film, “Drinking Buddies.” Well, relationships and beer.
The film does not posses a plot in the traditional sense and instead chooses to drop the viewer into a collection of vignettes centered on coworkers at a small Chicago brewery: Kate (Olivia Wilde) and Luke (Jake Johnson) pal around work and home, occasionally roping in their significant others, Chris (Ron Livingston) and Jill (Anna Kendrick), respectively. These vignettes, shot less like a piece of cinema and more like a Someone Still Loves You Borris Yeltsin music video, detail the interconnected relationships these four people share and the toll that their suppressed emotions take on their psyches.
Swanberg brings with him the cachet of being one of the figureheads of mumblecore, a genre populated by small, sparse, independent films that deal in minimal stakes and trendy, slacker wardrobes, as if the Dogme 95 movement were cannibalized by the ironic lotharios of Brooklyn. But “Drinking Buddies” feels like a graduation from the humbler, less assured films of Swanberg’s early career like “Hannah Takes the Stairs” towards what could patronizingly be called “big-boy cinema.” His pragmatic and poetic authorial stamp is ever-present in the movie, yet rightfully never feels like the main attraction, serving as a series of sinews that make the movie’s interconnected actions feel relevant.
With his light touch, Swanberg (who, in true mumblecore fashion is pulling triple-duty as writer, director, and editor) turns the events of the film into something more akin to a short story than any kind of normative romantic movie narrative. This style positions the text and momentum of the story entirely in subtextual space; instead of having a character verbally communicate their motivations and intentions, “Drinking Budies” relies on metaphor and the actors’ performances to sell any sort of adulterous intent or romantic confusion. For this reason, the movie’s success is heavily reliant on the principal actors’ performances. I was quite taken with them, although it’s not hard to see how one wouldn’t like the film if they didn’t respond to the cast’s particular brands of charisma, especially those of Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson.
However, charisma aside, Swanberg and his cast prove that they can handle the tightrope act of balancing the metaphor and the subversive nature of their storytelling format from the get-go. Barley ten minutes into the film, an inciting incident of sorts sets things in motion as the two couples take a trip to a cabin for an undetermined amount of time. In this setting, the characters effectively swap partners for the first day, which Swanberg uses as a chance to let his talented actors play off each other in flirtatious, boozy glory, intercutting between the two rearranged pairs to underline the stress on each individual’s relationship with their partner. These people aren’t necessarily broken; they are just wary and afraid. What if this person I am with isn’t really the proverbial One? What if they are, and I’m just too frightened to make any sort of meaningful commitment? What if I’m incapable of a deep, passionate relationship with another human?
Such questions are what drive the characters through the trials of the film, whether they are discussing the benefits of marriage or moving a couch. These quiet and conversational-in-nature developments work only because the actors share great rapport, defined by such scenes as Wilde and Johnshon playfully fighting over french fries, and the two of them chatting about an imaginary casino, bouncing off each other with a vibrancy that invokes the sense of a storied and lengthy friendship. Wilde and Johnson bring damage and immaturity to their characters without ever becoming less endearing or seeming flippant. Johnson–who has spent a couple seasons on “New Girl” perfecting the art of the adorable, affable, nebulously chubby, sage dude, spirit animal to all moderately-to-extremely chubby dudes lacking his confidence–is not afraid to carry the introspective weight of Swanberg’s script and is far and away the keystone to whatever success the film attains.
“Drinking Buddies” is the culmination of the years of effort made by the mumblecore movement since it began demanding validation. Swanberg takes the low-key, innovative approach that has been the defining aspect of the movement (the film is shot entirely on location, the actors drink actual alcohol during takes, the nature of the edits is fluid) and uses his tools to turn the romantic comedy on its head. The film is not beholden, however, to the kitschier elements of mumblecore, choosing to abandon the faux-hipster production design and overtly know-it-all atmosphere and focus on character.
By leveraging mumblecore’s strongest quirks, “Drinking Buddies” becomes a film about our deep need to have relationships, not bound to its genre context. That the film deals with the complex topic of adults beginning to search for and define the elusive holy grail of a lasting, important relationship with tact and subtlety is impressive enough. That it has the courage and prudence to end in mid-sentence rather than with a boisterous and inane “true love conquers all” epilogue is extra impressive. “Drinking Buddies” isn’t out to change the world; it just wants you to know that if you love beer and have no idea how to love a person, you aren’t alone in your worries. You may be surprised with whom your booze-addled wants lead you to.
“Drinking Buddies” is currently available to stream on Netflix.