Joe Swanberg’s was not a name I was familiar with prior to this picture (despite having just seen him in You’re Next) so I was somewhat surprised to read that this film, Drinking Buddies, is his fourteenth feature and not a debut. There is something about Buddies that causes it to exude both the energy and inefficiency of a filmmaker fresh on the scene, it has a youthfulness ill-befitting its age and this seemingly comes from Swanberg’s semi-improvisational style. The actors at the films core – whose names I am highly aware of, their being what initially caught my eye in the MIFF guide – were apparently given near free reign in which to inhabit and develop their characters and this looseness from Swanberg seems largely responsible for the film’s feel, its amazing performances and its one potent flaw.
Drinking Buddies is based in a micro-brewery and charts the chemistry of two co-workers more than willing to get low on their own supply; if you were to even attempt a drink-for-drink viewing of this film you would surely die. That said it’s not a movie about alcoholism, the word is never once mentioned nor is addict; the drinking simply serves as a social lubricant that allows the drama to slip out of situations and as a digestive that helps the characters cope with the fallout the next day. They drink in every scene because that’s what these characters both would and need to do and the lack of shame shown for it is interesting.
The up side of the safe space that Swanberg seems to have created for the cast is that every aspect of the film is similarly shameless. It’s such a shallow thing but what first struck me about Olivia Wilde’s performance in the picture – which is, I would say, the best she has given by virtue of her playing a real person – was her skin; Wilde is obviously a very attractive woman and film’s usually do their utmost to enhance that but here she is shot in close-up with a slight oily sheen to her seemingly make-up free face. She doesn’t use a fake nose, fat suit or CGI’d cheeks to de-glamourise herself and this little touch adds so much to the reality of her role, which pushes her in a lot of challenging directions, each of which she nails.
The supporting cast – Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick and Ron Livingston – all match her blow for blow though they are arguably given less to do. Though it takes a few minutes to properly warm to it together they craft a charming world that is a pleasure to be put through, even if, like myself, you’re not one for the brew. After the introductory half hour the cast all take a trip out to a beachfront cabin and here the film really takes off, the two couples converging and contrasting in interesting ways; the intercutting between the day they spent switched up is hilarious, heartfelt and had something very interesting to ask about relationships: should we be with someone the same as ourselves or our opposite? Should our other half be identical or inverted?
The trip comes to an end just as suddenly as it starts and the story shifts with it, away from this material and towards something slightly different, something less defined despite the prevalence of tis associated drama. Perhaps it’s simply that I liked the characters so much that I didn’t enjoy seeing them sad, but the inevitable late second act emotional slump wasn’t as satisfying as what came before it and, without wanting to spoil even this low stakes drama, the conclusion didn’t resolve any of these issues, primarily because it didn’t resolve anything.
What Drinking Buddies works as is not a film per-se, but a snap-shot into the personal lives of some averagely ailed human beings. This isn’t the defining moment in any of their lives, its simply a moment; the story could just as easily have been that of the month before this or the one after and there is something refreshing about that level of authenticity when you contrast it to the abridgement that most movies are structurally contrived around. So if you have a moment to spare from your own life or if your real friends are busy and you want someone to have a beer with then you’d be hard pressed to find a better or more sincere substitute than Drinking Buddies (which, by the way, is debuting on Demand as I write this).