You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

SXSW Review: ‘Drinking Buddies’

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.

Drinking Buddies

Reviewed at SXSW Film Festival (Narrative Spotlight), March 13, 2013. Running time: 90 MIN.

A Burn Later presentation in association with Rise Entertainment and Dark Arts. (International sales: CAA, Los Angeles.) Produced by Paul Bernon, Sam Slater, Andrea Roa, Joe Swanberg, Alicia Van Couvering. Executive producer, Mike Witherill, Ashley Bernon, Jessica Klapman, David Kaplan, Anish Savjani, Olivia Wilde. Co-producers, Alex Witherill, Chris Modoono.

Directed, written, edited by Joe Swanberg. Camera (color, widescreen), Ben Richardson; music supervisor, Chris Swanson; production designer, Brandon Tonner-Connolly; art director, Akin McKenzie; set decorator, Jennifer Herrig; sound, Jesse McAlpin; re-recording engineer, Drew Weir; line producer, Michaela McKee; casting Mark Bennett.

With: Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick, Ron Livingston, Ti West, Gene Dentler, Mike Brune, Frank V. Ross.

Popular on Variety

SXSW Review: 'Drinking Buddies'

More Film

  • Inside Tinder's User-Controlled, Secret Streaming Sereis

    Inside Tinder's Secret Streaming Series (EXCLUSIVE)

    Popular dating app Tinder is set to release a choose-your-own-adventure-style original series in early October, marking its first outing as a content financier and distributor, numerous individuals close to the project told Variety. The series is set against an impending apocalypse, one of the insiders noted, and asks the question “Who would you spend your [...]

  • Workforce

    David Zonana Talks ‘Workforce,’ Moral Challenges, Style

    MADRID  — The kernel, quality and qualities of David Zonana’s debut feature “Workforce” were already detectable in his very first short, 2014’s “Princess,” which prompted Variety to announce him as a Mexican director to track. Four years later, he’s come good on that promise with the Wild Bunch-sold “Workforce” (“Mano de obra”), his feature debut. [...]

  • Swedes Call for Incentives to Keep

    Swedes Call for Incentives to Keep Potential Runaways at Home

    Horror film “Midsommar” did it last year. A new adaptation of the Swedish classic “The Emigrants” will do it next year. Prestigious productions that could have taken advantage of beautiful Swedish locations and craft expertise continue to run away to foreign locations for lower costs and tax incentives. Despite having a strong film industry creatively [...]

  • Ted FarnsworthDeadline's Cocktails on the Croisette,

    Former MoviePass Chairman Ted Farnsworth Trying to Buy Failing Subscription Company

    Ted Farnsworth, the financier who helped set in motion MoviePass’s meteoric rise and precipitous fall, has submitted an offer to purchase the beleaguered subscription service and its parent company, Helios and Matheson Analytics Inc. Financial terms of the offer were not disclosed, but Farnsworth, who served as Helios’ chairman and chief executive officer is also [...]

  • Billy Crystal Comedy 'Standing Up, Falling

    Billy Crystal and Ben Schwartz Comedy 'Standing Up, Falling Down' Picked Up By Shout! Studios (EXCLUSIVE)

    Shout! Studios has acquired all North American rights to comedy feature “Standing Up, Falling Down,” starring Billy Crystal, Ben Schwartz and Eloise Mumford. The theatrical release for the film, which debuted at Tribeca Film Festival, is slated for early next year. Schwartz, whose credits include “Parks & Recreation” and “Blue Iguana,” voices the title character [...]

  • Cocina Belleza

    San Sebastian: ‘Cocinar Belleza’s’ Sergio Piera, Toni Segarra Talk Culinary Art

    Cognoscenti of culinary documentaries relish how open the genre is, driving deep into technique, amazing spectators by revealing the profession’s depths. Rarely, however, does a documentary decide to sidestep the well-known beats of the genre, step back and capture a bigger picture that asks about the nature of beauty and art rather than culinary craftsmanship [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content