Friends with beer and benefits
The scarily prolific Joe Swanberg works a minimalist, realist palette. His movies (he made eight of them in 2011 alone!) used to come affixed with the "mumblecore" tag - low-fi indies about the everyday travails of low-idle hipsters and urban twentysomethings.
In some respects, Drinking Buddies represents a departure. It has bigger stars, and a bigger budget to go with them. (And the characters all have real jobs.) But then, it's not that much of a departure: the movie's pivotal emotional moments occur during a hike in the woods and a move to a new apartment with a rental truck. Storm-tossed drama this is not.
Olivia Wilde is Kate, committed to her job at a Chicago craft beer company (she's "the face and voice of this brewery") - and committed to not much else. She's seeing Chris (Ron Livingston), a music producer with a loft, a vinyl collection, and a bit of an OCD issue. He gives Kate books to read - John Updike's Rabbit, Run, for one - and smart post-coital critiques to go with them. (The movie's other telling literary reference: a collection of Tony Hoagland poems, What Narcissism Means to Me.)
But at work, it's Kate and Luke (Jake Johnson) who seem like the real couple. They share their lunches and a jokey view of the world. They flirt. They food-fight. But Luke is in a relationship with Jill (Anna Kendrick) - they live together, they talk about marriage.
So what happens when the two couples drive off to Chris' lakeshore cabin for a weekend? And then when Jill goes off on a business trip?
Drinking Buddies walks a fine line between the mundane and the meaningful, but the actors walking it are top-notch. Wilde has never been better, more real, and her Kate is no easy nut to crack - she's smart, she's attractive, but she's got a destructive side that isn't doing her, or anyone in her orbit, any good. Johnson's affable beer dude - with his beard and trucker caps and boyish, cracking voice - has a darker, more complicated side, too. If Kendrick seems like the odd duck here, that works for the film, too.
In its shruggy, shambling way, Swanberg's movie asks pointed questions about intimacy, and jealousy, and whether it is possible for a man and a woman to have a fully rewarding friendship without throwing all the messiness of sex into the equation.
A pint of porter, anyone?
Drinking Buddies *** (Out of four stars)
Directed by Joe Swanberg. With Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick, and Ron Livingston. Distributed by Magnolia Pictures.
Running time: 1 hour, 30 mins.
Parent's guide: R (profanity, craft beer, adult themes)
Playing at: Ritz Bourse