One could be forgiven for considering Olivia Wilde the Gretchen Mol of her generation. You know, an actor with enormous promise who made early and frequent missteps. In Mol’s case, just about everything that isn’t Rounders—in which she’s not very good, but her character is cardboard thin—qualifies.
Mol hasn’t made that many movies, so the baddies really stand out. In Wilde’s case, there are serious turds (Cowboys & Aliens; Year One; Tron: Legacy; In Time; the abysmal The Words), but there’s also the just so-so (The Incredible Burt Wonderstone) and the good-for-what-they-are (Alpha Dogs; People Like Us).
Enter Drinking Buddies, a movie that’s not just good, but near great, and Wilde is the lead. Somewhere in an alternate reality, I’m also a millionaire.
Drinking Buddies focuses on Kate (Wilde) and Luke (Jake Johnson, a million miles away from his Nick on New Girl), two microbrewery employees, she the business manager and he a brewer, who are great friends, drinking buddies and possibly in love. Unfortunately—or maybe fortunately—they’re both in relationships. Chris (Ron Livingston) is Kate’s boyfriend, and Jill (Anna Kendrick), Luke’s longtime girlfriend, is talking marriage.
It all seems pretty simple, and it is. Drinking Buddies is a little like When Harry Met Sally…, but without the quips, plot and romance. That may seem like an odd comparison—the movies are planets apart in sensibility—but they both deal with a friendship between a man and a woman and whether it can remain platonic.
Of course, it’s hard to remain platonic when the characters keep giving themselves opportunities to take things to the next level. Early on in Drinking Buddies’ short running time, we see Chris and Jill smiling awkwardly, knowingly, at each other as they discuss her job, and Kate and Luke have the kinds of hands-on friendship that any sane partner would look at and raise an eyebrow.
A couples’ trip to Chris’ family beach home in Michigan (much of the movie is set in Chicago) makes things a little awkward. There’s a hike. There’s a late-night swim. There are drinking games. Then everyone returns to Chicago and their lives change.
The changes in their lives are profound, but not in a traditional romantic comedy kind of way. In other words, no one is living happily ever after as Harry and Sally do in Nora Ephron’s screenplay. The changes are real-life changes, the kinds of things we feel over years, not the length of a movie.
Drinking Buddies writer-director-editor Joe Swanberg is much more interested in the complications that arise along the way in male-female friendships than the end result. By the movie’s end, there’s resolution, but it will mean different things to each viewer.
One of the most refreshing things about Drinking Buddies is Swanberg’s willingness to let his actors stretch out. It results in the characters feeling like people we know. Someone in our lives, much like a Kate, Chris, Luke or Jill, has come to us and said, “Hey, this thing happened over the weekend.” Swanberg’s camera captures all the ins and outs of the trip—and the few weeks after—in their own time, and lets the actors’ faces register the subtlest emotions that don’t get the time in the bigger budgeted stuff.
For example, when Kate and Chris drop Luke and Jill off at home after the weekend getaway, watch Kate’s face as Chris closes her car door. The camera lingers for just a moment, and Wilde’s expression says more than any dialogue in the script could.
Swanberg is one of the darlings of the so-called Mumblecore movement—or what we used to call “independent filmmaking”—but Drinking Buddies is more polished than his earlier films as director (and clearly had more money, if not much more). It’s also given Wilde—in perhaps her smallest movie—her best role. Funny how that works.
Written and directed by Joe Swanberg
With Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson and Anna Kendrick