Rated R for language throughout.
Running time: 90 minutes.
Three stars out of four.
“Drinking Buddies” is a crackling screwball comedy refracted through a low-key, mumblecore prism.
Admittedly, I’m not terribly fond of the word mumblecore and find it reductive — not unlike the phrases “chick flick” or “Oscar bait” to describe certain kinds of films — but for the sake of argument and to avoid wordiness, let’s just call it that for now. Mumblecore is, after all, the indie oeuvre that spawned “Drinking Buddies” writer-director-editor Joe Swanberg with early films like 2007’s “Hannah Takes the Stairs.”
But like his contemporaries the Duplass brothers and Lynn Shelton, Swanberg has emerged from the low-budget, meandering trappings of the genre and made a movie that reflects a maturity in its structure, production values and narrative drive.
That’s not to say that this is a glossy piece of formulaic, studio filmmaking by any means. The thing that makes these movies engaging is the sense of realism they create, the effortless naturalism of the aesthetic and dialogue. Scenes are shot intimately, highlighting their recognizable imperfection — that includes quiet, understated rhythms that are borderline boring. More often, though, “Drinking Buddies” not only provides the sensation that we’re eavesdropping on the employees of a Chicago microbrewery, it also makes us want to hang out with them and grab a pint. Or two. Or three …
The word “drinking” in the title isn’t just a suggestion or a metaphor. It’s what these people do all day, every day — and night. (It is very easy to imagine the drinking games this film will inspire.) Like the excellent indie romance “The Spectacular Now,” “Drinking Buddies” follows its characters as they straddle the line between hard partying and full-blown alcoholism — and watches them stumble over it. Unlike Miles Teller’s heavy-drinking high school senior in “The Spectacular Now,” though, these characters actually have to drink. After all, it’s work-related.
Olivia Wilde stars as Kate, who runs the brewery’s office. She’s also the only woman who works there. She’s also quite possibly the coolest chick alive — or at least, that’s how she appears at the start. She can hang with the boys, be as crass as they are, match them pint-for-pint but still maintain her femininity. Wilde radiates outrageous beauty and screen presence even in little makeup, jeans and a tank top that aren’t particularly stylish; in time, though, her character’s selfish side comes shining through.
Jake Johnson co-stars as her co-worker, Luke. He does a lot of the grunt work around the place, so his amiably scruffy demeanor and perpetual trucker hat are more than just an affected hipster facade. He’s fast-talking and quick-witted; nothing is inappropriate or off limits. He is brazenly confident in his own skin but can also show unexpected kindness.
More like brother and sister who are constantly teasing each other than just best friends, Kate and Luke share an insane amount of chemistry, both verbally and physically. Watching the two of them together, either sparring energetically or enjoying quieter, dryer banter, is the chief joy of “Drinking Buddies.” It’s clear that they’re in love with each other, that they’re meant to be together, but wouldn’t you know it? They’re both seeing other people.
Luke has been in a longtime serious relationship with special-ed teacher Jill (the always-adorable Anna Kendrick); lately, the two have been talking marriage. It’s to the film’s credit that Jill never comes off as a shrill, nagging harpy when she brings up the topic of making wedding plans. Kate, meanwhile, has been dating record producer Chris (Ron Livingston) for about eight months now. But the fact that he doesn’t drink beer — and that he gently scolds her for setting her bottle down on his stylish, mid-century modern coffee table — clearly bodes ill for their relationship.
The possibility of change becomes especially evident when Kate and Luke introduce their significant others at a party at the brewery, and again when the four of them go away together for a weekend at Chris’ lake house. While Jill and Chris go on a hike in the woods, Kate and Luke stay inside, playing blackjack and — you guessed it — drinking beer.
But while “Drinking Buddies” evolves in terms of plot and emotion, it doesn’t necessarily go where you might expect, and it never hews to the conventions of a romantic comedy. Yes, there are romantic sparks and there’s a ton of humor. But “Drinking Buddies” seems more interested in observing the details of daily life than striving for a forced, feel-good sense of closure. Ultimately, it feels like its own unique brew altogether: sweet and silly and sad. And above all, hoppy.