With fifteen directing credits under his belt since 2005, and almost twice that number of acting gigs, Joe Swanberg is nothing if not prolific. He’s also intensely divisive, having long ago earned the dubious honor of serving as a lightning rod for the critical community; as one of the mumblecore film movement’s most prominent non-Duplass icons, Swanberg’s films are in turn reviled or revered, with the only consensus being that the Detroit-born DIY wunderkind makes the movies he wants to make, the way he wants to make them. Not exactly a towering feat for productions that generally don’t involve more than a handful of cast and crew members – the better for Swanberg to exercise primary authorship over his art.
That alone makes Drinking Buddies, his latest feature, an enormous departure from his previous efforts. Here, he’s working with an actual ensemble – consisting of Jake Johnson, Olivia Wilde, Anna Kendrick, and Ron Livingston – while actual behind-the-scenes types assist him in bringing his vision to life. He even has a cinematographer framing his shots, a rarity in his filmography, in which he generally steers the camera himself. No one can really argue that Ben Richardson (of Beasts of the Southern Wild fame) doesn’t provide a huge visual upgrade to Swanberg’s typical styling, or that the presence of more mainstream faces (particularly Wilde) isn’t an asset for his narrative; on that same token, though, no one can really argue that their joint involvement prevents Drinking Buddies from feeling like a matured version of a Joe Swanberg picture.
Take that line in the most positive spirit possible. However familiar one may or may not be with his work – I can only claim scant acquaintance, though I consider his contributions to 2012’s V/H/S to be among the best that omnibus has to offer – there’s no denying the warmth, charm, and complicated humanity that echoes throughout Drinking Buddies‘s structure. Whether there’s much else supporting the film may well be a case of varying mileage, but these qualities alone make the film a delight to watch; there’s a sense here that Swanberg has resolved his lament during the 2012 Fantastic Fest debates and decided exactly what kind of filmmaker he wants to be.
Bully for him. Such determinations are difficult to come by at best in artistic pursuits, and if Drinking Buddies marks the moment in his career where he lays out his interests and proclivities on the table, then perhaps we’d all best pay attention. The story here revolves around Kate (Wilde) and Luke (Johnson), employees at a craft brewery (Swanberg, himself a serious beer aficionado, shot the film on location at Revolution in Chicago, and when we see Johnson performing Luke’s daily duties, he’s genuinely hard at work) and dedicated BFFs; they both have separate romantic relationships, she with Chris (Livingston) and he with Jill (Kendrick), defying the notion that men and women can’t just be friends. But there are cracks showing in the movie’s interpersonal connections, and Swanberg makes it his task to document the fractures with honesty.
Every boilerplate plot synopsis available on the web implies that the status quo is challenged on a weekend trip the couples take together, but in truth that little getaway occurs early in Drinking Buddies‘ running time and scarcely diverts the course of Swanberg’s narrative. There’s much more to Kate’s and Luke’s lives than a single instance of R&R can impact on its own; that’s a wordy way of saying that Swanberg’s characterizations are complex and intricate, and that both of his leads feel very real and very dynamic. Their significant others don’t play as much a role in the proceedings – they tend to act like part of the film’s backdrop – and someone out there might consider that short-changing.
Truthfully, Jill and Chris matter as much as they’re supposed to and no more than that; though Kendrick and Livingston instill their individual parts with enough spirit to give them more than a pulse, they’re incidental. They exist for purposes of function more than anything else, and ultimately their actions have meaning only in terms of how they impact Luke and Kate, who are Drinking Buddies‘ real stars. Can we ever just be pals with members of the opposite sex? How does a platonic bond between a man and a woman shape their love lives? Swanberg has definitive answers to these questions in mind, and he’s both gentle and shrewd enough that he doesn’t need to jam them down our throats – his sentiment comes across easily and without fuss.
As remarkably articulate as he can be, though, he still stumbles at times, and despite being as lean and trim as a feature can get, Drinking Buddies sags in the third act. The sluggish pacing here feels odd for more reasons than meet the eye; it’s not like the drama stops, per se, but it does begin slowly maundering as the once-clear message grows garbled. Maybe the difficulty here is that Luke’s and Kate’s feelings are themselves somewhat muddled, and when they inevitably have a brief falling out in the film’s climax, we understand the emotional conundrum but not necessarily the steps taken to arrive there. Something’s missing, or perhaps the problem lies on the opposite axis.
Yet Drinking Buddies holds up all the way to its final shot, capturing a sweet moment of reconciliation. Partly, that’s a credit to Johnson, gregarious and gentlemanly, and Wilde, luminous and playful, whose performances carry Drinking Buddies even at its most lethargic; they’re terrific to watch, so much so that saying goodbye to them after only an hour and twenty minutes feels surprisingly difficult. The other part, of course, is Swanberg himself, whose passion for beer and fascination with human interactions give his film a firm mooring in reality. Maybe Drinking Buddies doesn’t differ from his past offerings that much on paper, but the lesson here is that conveying your message becomes easier when you have the right people aiding your vision. Let’s see how much he takes that to heart in the future.