Like any good beer or alcoholic beverage, it's all in the recipe. With DRINKING BUDDIES, take one part Ben Richardson's cinematography, two parts OUTSTANDING performance by Jake Johnson, and some great observational storytelling by writer/director Joe Swanberg and allow to simmer and brew. The result is a warm, aged brew that has a little bit of bite as you slowly sip it, but then leaves a lingering sweetness on the palate.
A departure from Swanberg’s patented unscripted and adored “mumblecore” styling, DRINKING BUDDIES boasts the maturity of a fine wine with a more defined story and dialogue structure and, as a necessity with a larger budget, planned and decisive lensing and locations. What is not a departure is the theme of friendship and working with friends in bringing the film to life.
Luke and Kate work in a Chicago craft brewery; Luke works the floor while Kate is the marketing director. Each is surrounded by a core group of friends and work buddies, sharing the rigors of day in, day out life. With a strong, and more than flirtatious, friendship in place, it’s obvious that Kate wants more than just friendship with Luke, despite the fact that she is in a relationship with the somewhat OCDC, yet grounded, eclectic music producer, Chris. Luke, on the other hand, is more than in love with Jill, a dedicated elementary school teacher. Starting everyday with a beer, and then continuing with them during work, at lunch, after work and at home, Kate is often scattered and unfocused and clearly not the girl for Chris, something which he soon sees. Alone and drowning her sorrows, Kate does the only possible thing - cry wolf and lean on Luke, thinking life will get better if she can win him from Jill - body, soul and beer bottles.
The male characters are truly the richest and most interesting of the batch, especially Johnson’s Luke. Jake Johnson shines with all the natural effervescence of a bubbly brewski in a gleaming glass. He has a fluidity to not only his physical movements, but his dialogue and personal interactions that draw the eye to him as being the guy who appreciates the simple things in life that make one happy. He needs no trappings. This is the guy you can drunk dial or text and he’ll still talk to you the next day, the guy who looks out for his friends and worries about them, but not in an overbearing commanding way. Johnson lets his performance breathe and DRINKING BUDDIES is the richer for it. My one fault with Johnson - - when you are shooting scenes sitting on a floor with your feet facing the camera, please wash them. I have NEVER seen the soles of bare feet as filthy and black as Johnson’s and, as Swanberg points out, “That was real. They really were that dirty!”
There are some bitter parts to this recipe, however, notably Olivia Wilde as the overly assertive, egomaniacal, narcissistic Kate who just grates on the every nerve, and a disappointing turn by Anna Kendrick. As Kate, Wilde delivers a beyond needy and demanding figure who would alienate me from the get-go if I had to work with her, let alone drink with her. (Kate is probably the reason all her co-workers want to run to a bar for some brewskis after work - they need to blot her from their minds. She is also probably her own reason for drinking so much. If I had to live in that mind and body, I’d drink, too.) On the other hand, Kendrick, while effective as Jill, delivers a put upon “fragility” that feels out of place and uncomfortable, like the third or fifth wheel on a date, making any efforts at assertiveness or conjoining with Ron Livingston’s Chris appear out of character.
Ron Livingston’s Chris is perhaps the most mature of the lot and provides a welcome calming balance to Wilde’s Kate. Where Livingston shines, as does Kendrick, is when Chris and Jill connect on a walk in the woods during a double date weekend. tentative, charming, their chemistry is undeniable.
Interesting and appreciated is that Swanberg limits the alcohol consumption of Jill and Chris and keeps them out of the “happy hour” mentality, allowing them to be both “outsiders” and “observers.” Sadly, a great little cameo by Jason Sudeikis as Kate’s boss is wasted, inexplicably falling the wayside as an unnecessary addition from first pour.
Characters are ordinary and real, living very ordinary lives. What resonates, however, is the inherent specificity that “just is”. Neither calculated nor planned, the flow is naturalistic and organically complimentary. There is no need for backstory. Swanberg plants us firmly in the moment thanks to the texture of performances, allowing us to “accept” life as it is with a story that has a refreshing casualness to it. Swanberg creates an effortless ease not only with the story and characters but with his direction. Lusting after each other’s partners and making the daring to dream romantic moves feel appropriate given that this is what happens nightly in bars around the world. Setting DRINKING BUDDIES in a brewery and a “beer bar world” gives a freeing tacit license to indiscretion or “drunken bravery”.
Ben Richardson’s cinematography is essential to DRINKING BUDDIES as its clean, crisp metaphor sets the tone as the perfect backdrop to the confusion of emotion that reigns thanks to Wilde and Kendrick. The opening brewery shots with the gleaming stainless steel machinery and capturing the detail of cleaning each and every hose, floor, vat, etc. elevates the characters as well, taking them out of the “run-of-the-mill laborer” to guys with pride in a job well done and in their product. The visuals speak volumes. And as comes as no surprise, Richardson’s framing is meticulous as it subtly draws the eye into focus.
The attention to detail with production design is more than effective - not only at the brewery, but with the rich warmth and dark wooded hues of the local bar and Chris’ brick-walled apartment. Similarly, the visual metaphor of Kate’s apartment - windows allowing lots of light - creates a wonderful ambiguity to the character and to the relationship between Kate and Luke. Kate’s affections for Luke are clear and they are out there for the world to see although she tries to play things close to the vest and “business like”.
Where Swanberg excels is in making DRINKING BUDDIES a more full-bodied emotional experience that his previous films. The construct is richer, the characters and emotions infused with some spice and nuanced flavor. The ambiguity of the characters and their relationships, particularly with the couples’ beach weekend, has a natural, unforced feel to it that allows everything to organically bubble to the top like the perfect head on a beer.
Taking the film to another level is music supervisor Chris Swanson’s wonderfully eclectic blend of songs. It’s like walking into a bar with 64 beers to choose from and saying “wow” to each one.
Like a well crafted craft beer that celebrates the personal touch of a micro-brewer, DRINKING BUDDIES is one tasty treat.
Written and Directed by Joe Swanberg
Cast: Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick, Ron Livingston