With “Drinking Buddies,” director Joe Swanberg proves what many had suspected — or at least hoped — all along: that he has learned something from directing 13 features in eight years, here finally making a romantic comedy that looks like it cost more than the price of a movie ticket to produce. It’s not that the insights into how Swanberg’s generation lives today are any more profound (they’re not), but it’s encouraging to see what professional actors, a musical score and a modicum of technique can do to spruce up this observational comedy about the sexual tension between two microbrewery co-workers.
Kate (Olivia Wilde) handles event planning for a Chicago craft beer company, where Luke (Jake Johnson) spends a lot of time hosing down the floors and vats. Whether on the job or hitting the bars afterwards, the two friends are so comfortable hanging out and flirting that neither one dares take their mutual attraction to the next level. And why would they? Both Kate and Luke are dating other people: She’s been going out with a wealthy older guy Chris (Ron Livingston) for eight months, while he has carefully avoided popping the question to g.f. Jill (Anna Kendrick).
Fans of Nora Ephron would do well to adjust their expectations, since Swanberg — who has never waited to have something to say before making a movie — shows no interest in simply repeating a proven formula. Instead, his model seems to be the more unpredictable (and plausible) Paul Mazursky approach, where messy individuals often chicken out or betray their own best interests in love.
As the title implies, Kate and Luke are more than friends and less than lovers, though auds would have to be pretty wasted not to pick up on the obvious sexual tension between them, a dynamic Wilde and Johnson, so naturalistic in nearly all other respects, play to the point of exaggeration. And so “Drinking Buddies” introduces alcohol as a catalyst to see where things go, eventually trotting out the cliche of countless other mumblecore movies by relocating the characters to a cabin, where they can explore their feelings away from society — but never far from a bottle of beer.
If this all sounds not so different from Swanberg’s earlier pics, don’t despair. In recent years, the helmer has interpreted the “do it yourself” maxim in the most literal possible way, scaling his productions down to a crew of one, in some cases directing his co-stars, setting the camera up on a tripod and then circling around in front of it to play a scene himself. On “Drinking Buddies,” however, he hires professionals on both sides of the camera, tapping “Beasts of the Southern Wild’s” Ben Richardson as d.p. and relying on a far more talented cast to invent the dialogue that brings his loose outline to life.
The result still doesn’t quite compare to a well-scripted comedy, though it looks good enough to pass for one of the lower-budget laffers Fox Searchlight has been green-lighting lately. Sticking to his performance style, Swanberg once again captures moments of seemingly unrehearsed truth that justify this approach — as when Luke rips his palm open while moving Kate’s couch, an injury whose bloody aftermath looks so convincing, it just might have been real.
While the leads are pros, the other employees include fellow indie helmers Ti West and Frank V. Ross, whose hipster attitude suits the location just fine. Shooting at the Half Acre and Revolution Brewing facilities provides a fresh backdrop for a familiar exploration of young coupling, though a better sense of the microbrewery itself would have given things some nice texture, especially considering the likely metaphor Swanberg had in mind between indie beer and his own mode of working: Relative to the major brands, the intimate, handcrafted approach should yield more flavor. Instead, “Drinking Buddies” offers mostly froth.