Usually having Olivia Wilde in a cast makes a movie automatically bad, therefore I was surprised that I absolutely loved Drinking Buddies. Not only is she in the movie, she’s the keystone that holds it together. I saw it last night and almost 24 hours later it’s still with me.
In this film written and directed by Joe Swanberg, one of the principles of the “mumblecore” school, Wilde plays the gal Friday at a brewery in Chicago. She is close friends with a co-worker, Jake Johnson, with whom she jokes around and flirts with, but the relationship is platonic. He lives with special ed teacher Anna Kendrick, while Wilde is dating Ron Livingston.
The foursome spend the weekend together at a cabin on Lake Michigan, and Kendrick and Livingston find each other attracted to one another, going so far as kissing while on a picnic. Johnson and Wilde have a late-night bonfire on the beach, and Wilde jumps into the lake, topless. If this were a Penthouse Forum letter, things would get very kinky, but seeing as this is about Midwestern Anglo-Saxons, everything is held close to the vest.
The tension between the two sets of couples, particularly Johnson and Wilde, percolates as the two realize their feelings, but are unwilling or perhaps afraid to act on them. When Kendrick leaves the country on a trip, Johnson helps Wilde move, where things come to a certain breaking point. The denouement, full of forgiveness, is remarkably cathartic.
As with Swanberg’s other pictures, this one is improvised, with the actors given the framework but coming up with their own dialogue, and it’s fantastic. The actors manage to convey so much with what isn’t said that it’s breathtakingly authentic. I think of a scene in which Johnson and Kendrick are discussing when they should get married. They speak in a kind of couples’ therapy politeness, but the subtext screams that Kendrick clearly wants to move it along, while Johnson is pushing it off, saying it will happen when it happens.
Everyone in the cast is wonderful, but I couldn’t be more surprised with Wilde, who up until now has been mostly adornment in her films. She is, of course, exceptionally beautiful, and at first I was resistant to a woman who looks like that playing someone who has a typical job. Then I realized I was being prejudicial–not all stunning women are actresses and models. She reminded me of a woman I work with, who is heart-stoppingly beautiful and a real party animal. I think what sold me on Wilde was a little thing in the early going, when she sits down at her desk. Before someone walks into her office she gives her armpit a quick sniff.
Another scene, in which Livingston tells her he needs to talk to her (he is about to break up with her) is also great, as the expression on Wilde’s face reveals that she knows exactly what it about to happen.
The fact that it’s called Drinking Buddies and it’s set in and around a brewery is both important and not important. Beer is a big part of these people’s lives–if I worked in a brewery, I might not want to go out for beer after work every night, but that’s just me. Alcohol is not a problem for these folks, but it’s ever-present, and the drinking of it is a major part of the action of this film. Fortunately the film does not veer into sensationalism, such as having one of the characters get a DUI or enter rehab. This movie is not preaching, it’s just showing.
I really liked this movie–it’s one of my favorites of the year–but it’s also right up my alley. It’s very theatrical, and almost could have been a play. There isn’t a lot visually interesting about it–Swanberg uses a moving camera a lot, so we feel like we’re tagging along–but the naturalism and the verisimilitude is palpable. It’s a terrific piece of work.
My grade for Drinking Buddies: A.