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Dustin Putman

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Drinking Buddies  (2013)
3 Stars
Directed by Joe Swanberg.
Cast: Jake Johnson, Olivia Wilde, Anna Kendrick, Ron Livingston, Ti West, Jason Sudeikis, Mike Brune, Frank V. Ross.
2013 – 90 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for language).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, August 19, 2013.
A Chicago microbrewery where office manager Kate (Olivia Wilde) and floor employee Luke (Jake Johnson) work is the central setting of "Drinking Buddies," a shrewd, earthy slice-of-life written and directed by frequent mumblecore auteur Joe Swanberg (2012's "V/H/S"). The film, heavily improvised by its actors as they effortlessly play off of and actualize a general outline, finds complexity in its avoidance of all things artificial and convenient. Whereas most movies about relationships adhere to formula and follow a tidy structure that inevitably must lead to conventions of the "happily-ever-after" variety, Swanberg emulates the ebbs and flows, hopes and disappointments that real life is destined to throw at a person. His cast is fully up to the challenge, with Olivia Wilde (2013's "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone") leading the charge and given the chance to explore a character with far more shades and weaknesses than most of the bigger, concept-driven Hollywood pictures she's been a part of in the past.

Good pals but no more than that, Kate and Luke share their lunches with each other, hang out after work hours at the local pub, and even head to a country cabin by the beach for a weekend getaway with their significant others, Kate's older music scout boyfriend Chris (Ron Livingston) and Luke's live-in girlfriend, special education teacher Jill (Anna Kendrick). Kate and Luke's flirtation is obvious but relatively innocent, with Chris and Jill the ones to actually act on their impulses and kiss during a morning hike. Soon after, Kate is unceremoniously broken up with while Jill, wanting to know if she and Luke have a future together, goes through feelings of guilt about her momentary indiscretion. When she heads to Europe for a one-week trip with friends, Luke and newly single Kate keep each other company. A tension begins to grow between them, but are they willing to take the next step? Is Luke ready to lose Jill in the process? Moreover, would they even be compatible as romantic partners?

Small in size yet keenly adept at human observation, films like "Drinking Buddies" are a pleasurable respite from the routine of seeing characters controlled by bigger-than-life plot hooks one can only find in cinema and television. Occasionally, it's nice to be able to more closely identify with people in a world not much different from the one that exists off the screen. As a title, "Drinking Buddies" is apropos. The friendship between Kate and Luke develops in a way that suggests there is an unspoken intimacy lingering just underneath the surface, but allows the viewer to decide if they are right for one another. Certainly, there's something to be said for Kate's willingness to explore her options when she finds herself a sudden eligible bachelorette again, but she is also responsible enough to not dare be a home-wrecker. Luke and Jill, after all, are respectful, loving, communicative, and possibly headed toward marriage. They have their own issues to work out, but are any of them grounds for deciding to part ways?

Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson (2012's "21 Jump Street") share lead duties as Kate and Luke, and their easy-going chemistry is always apparent. Separately, these are fairly rich performances, nuanced and sympathetic and unfettered by affectations. Johnson's wildly bearded Luke could afford to shave, but that is neither here nor there. Anna Kendrick (2012's "Pitch Perfect") can professionally seem to do no wrong, and she is readily available and finally poignant as Jill, a young woman who isn't sure if Luke has the same vision as she does for their future while also realizing the two of them cannot be dishonest as they start their lives together. As Chris, Ron Livingston (2013's "The Conjuring") receives the least fully realized role, his Chris hastily and flippantly breaking up with Kate and then disappearing midway through.

A common misconception is that straight men and woman cannot be friends, and perhaps that is all Luke and Kate are ever meant to be. "Drinking Buddies" is not one of those comedies that aims for busting guts, the humor on hand deriving from the truth within interactions. Director Joe Swanberg also isn't willing to provide a finite answer to the tricky ins and outs of the interpersonal relationships between Luke and Kate, as well as Luke and Jill, complimenting these young lives still in motion with the suggestion that everyone is, in some ways and always, a work in progress. There are a few minor debits to point out, including the frequency with which everyone seems to drink yet never has a hangover—if any of them are alcoholics, the film doesn't go there—and a few awkward transitions that feel as if a scene is missing—early on, the two couples tell each other they'll see the other later, then in the next moment are going away together for the weekend—but these are forgivable issues. Besides, there is an innate comfort and reliability in what "Drinking Buddies" has to offer. Swanberg doesn't want to recreate the wheel, he just wants to capture a vision of life as it really is. Sometimes, that's enough.
© 2013 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman