Okay, we’ve all been to this dance before; platonic besties sharing a flirtacious relationship at work. Obviously they’re perfect for each other, but oh no! Complication! They’re already in relationships with people who are not perfect for them! How will they cope with this human drama-
I broke one of the cardinal rules when I went to see Drinking Buddies, the new Joe Swanberg film. I walked in with preconcieved expectations. But can you really blame me? The rom-com market is so heavily saturated with sickeningly sweet narratives that make many a cinematographic equivelant of one of those fill-in-the-blanks books you played with as a kid*. However, I am a professional, so coffee in hand I made my way to the Nova, determined to give it a go.
And boy am I glad I did.
Drinking Buddies starts as you’d expect; Luke (Jake Johnson) and Kate (Olivia Wilde) are co-workers and besties at the Chicago Revolution micro-brewery, where their back-and-forth flirtation quickly establishes the will-they-won’t-they dynamic. Although they probably won’t; Luke is starting the marriage talk with Jill (Anna Kendrick), his girlfriend of six years, and Kate is in a serious** relationship with music producer boyfriend Chris (Ron Livingston). It’s more obvious with Kate and Chris, but cracks are begining to emerge in both relationships, which come to a head when the four go on an overnight beach trip. And that’s where the film starts to become amazing.
What Swanberg has very cleverly done until this point is build up our expectations. It’s almost TV Trope-esque; he has a list of rom-com staples that he’s working his way through, carefully checking them off, and then in a single scene, completely shattering them. I can’t really describe the pivotal scene without spoilers, but I could tell from the audience reaction around me that none of us had seen it coming. And the film just keeps doing that.
The other very interesting thing about the film is that huge portions of it are almost entirely improvised, which leads to really organic dialogue. It’s a tribute to both Johnson and Wilde as actors that they are able to so perfectly step into character. It’s also worth noting that all the beer drunk on screen is real beer, which is a brave choice!
Kendrick is everything you’d expect, and there’s some real depth to her character, transforming her from what could have easily been a support role to a lead. Unfortunately, while performed ably by Livingston, Chris never really became more than one dimensional to me, which is a shame.
I also became a tiny bit frustrated by Luke, who is one of those perpetually nice-guys whom everyone loves; there were very few moments when he showed anything other than mindless enthusiams and optimism. In fairness, though, while few and far between, when we got to them, Johnson did get a chance to stretch his acting muscle and gave a strong performance.
Highlights for me include Kate completely calling until-that-point-entirely-nice-guy Luke out on slut-shaming, which gave a very strong feminst slant, and the almost completely silent*** resolution scene, which ends the film in an upbeat, but again unexpected way.
Also, Jason Sudeikis is there, for some inexplicable reason.
- Joe Swanberg directs Jake Johnson, Olvia Wilde, Anna Kendrick and Ron Livingston.
- Indie-feeling Rom-Com.
- Premiered at South by South West earlier this year, released here on Boxing Day.
- Drinking Buddies will screen exclusively at the Nova.
- Prices vary.
*also, Hugh Grant always plays the same role. Has no one else noticed this? It’s driving me mental.
**it’s funny to me, because he’s a serious character.
***apart from the sounds of food.