5:02 PM EDT, August 21, 2013
A short glass of 3.2 beer, Joe Swanberg's "Drinking Buddies" has the advantage of a "name" cast that happens also to be talented: Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson as employees of a Chicago microbrewery, at work and play; Ron Livingston and Anna Kendrick as their significant others, though as in all Swanberg films the significance of all the relationships at hand is up for debate, for grabs and for a halfhearted change of partners.
The casting advantage is also a disadvantage, in that the skillful quartet at the center of "Drinking Buddies" reveals the weaknesses in the material. The occasional honest moments emerge nonverbally, as when the camera catches a few seconds of second thoughts flitting across Wilde's face, for example. The skeletal storyline engineers an attraction between her character, a hard-drinking key player in the male-dominated craft brewery, and Johnson's fun-loving colleague. It's clear they like each other. It's clear, too, that their partners are mutually attracted. The only question in "Drinking Buddies" is who's going to transgress first and to what degree.
Chicago-based Swanberg shot the film last year in various Chicago locations and on the beach in southern Michigan, where the two couples spend a weekend together. Like a lot of indie filmmakers, Swanberg (who wrote, directed and edited) encourages a looseness on set, leading to plenty of improvised variations on whatever was written. Now and then, a sharp bit of casual-sounding dialogue spices things, as when Livingston, sampling a microbrew at a tasting, is asked to describe the combination of flavors and comes up with "jelly sandwiches … dark clouds of puberty on the horizon …"
What happens in "Drinking Buddies" isn't a matter of surprise or insight; it's more a matter of four people, plus a handful of side characters (Jason Sudeikis, Wilde's squeeze off screen, plays a co-worker), beering their way into passive-aggressive compromising situations and then avoiding the Big Talks that might prove difficult or messy.
The male leads aren't particularly differentiated; both feel undeserving of their good fortune. "I probably spent the first month wondering what was in it for her," Livingston's character confesses to Kendrick's.
The chemistry between Wilde's character and Johnson's, meantime, is established through their high jinks (smearing cold cuts on each other's faces, etc.) and the way they crack each other up. "Drinking Buddies" has a cleaner structure than Swanberg's earlier wanderings, but after several projects I still don't know what compels him as a filmmaker or if he has anything to suggest other than Women Are Hard To Figure Out and Relationships Are Hard To Sustain. My favorite moment, ironically, belongs to Swanberg, the sometime actor; his few seconds of rage as a motorist blocked in the street on moving day is funny and nicely unexpected, especially after all the inconsequential mutterings in between rounds.
"Drinking Buddies" -- 2 stars
MPAA rating: R (for language throughout)
Running time: 1:30
Opens: Friday and currently available VOD.
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