I have always loved a good handcrafted beer. The taste of a perfectly grained White Ale or Hefeweizen in the summer with a hint (a HINT) of banana or orange cannot be topped by anything, save for a Russian Imperial Stout in those last days of autumn as only the solitary leaf remains on its branch and the cool winds come.
Yet, like everything in life, the sumptuous joy derived from an authentic beer is best enjoyed in moderation. And that goes for daring filmmaking too in the case of Joe Swanberg’s wonderfully acted but infinitely frustrated Drinking Buddies.
The eclectic filmmaker of projects as varied as Hannah Takes the Stairs and a segment of V/H/S, has charted out an ambitious film set at a microbrewery that has an all-star cast working on a micro-budget. And with players as strong as Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick, Ron Livingston and a cameo-ing Jason Sudeikis, it is no surprise they brew something that you will at least want to sample.
The audacious film attempts to chart a course around that scary stage many experience in their late 20s and early 30s: strong coed friendships and an even stronger identity crisis for the single and nervous. However, Swanberg tries to add an extra dose of reality, which is to be the film’s calling card: None of the actors are allowed to read the script.
The approach, which captures again some impressive performances, works just as it sounds. The actors are given the general direction of how every scene is supposed to play out, and how their characters are approximately intended to act, before being freed to find the truth and honesty amongst themselves. One of the perks of this style of direction is it creates some tenacious character ownership for the performers.
Kate (Wilde) and Luke (Johnson) are longtime drinking buddies. They have worked at the same brewery for a number of years and enjoy that kind of requited friendship that maddens everyone around them. These two relapse into the satisfied-pal roles like a chain smoker that cannot even process the thought of trying out a patch. It likely cannot help Kate that Luke is in a very happy, stable, long-term relationship with Jill (Kendrick).
If Jill is as easygoing and smoothly composed as a traditional Bavarian Pilsner, then Kate is a wild Pale Ale. She is a disparate combination of tense emotions that can draw her to someone like Luke with a knowing smile and granite-solid camaraderie before ripping her away with severe annoyance that even she cannot convince herself is actual fury. What they both pretend is flakiness is actually a much more earnest emotion that would occupy a vineyard better than their current place of business.
It is not like Kate hasn’t recently found someone for herself. She has Chris (Livingston), an older guy who is more of a single malt Scotch kind of person. Coming from a few more years and a lot more money, Chris attempts to cultivate a sense of serenity in the always tempestuous and extroverted Kate. But when the two couples decide to spend the weekend together at Chris’s cabin, it quickly becomes apparent to everyone that she would rather spend time cracking open a cold one with Luke. And to Jill’s quiet horror, as the youngest of the group who is still patiently waiting for Luke to even agree to discuss marriage, Luke seems to enjoy Kate’s drinking game best of all too.
Swanberg’s rare vision on the material is what elevates it, even if that is to a plateau of isolation. This easily sitcom setup could have stumbled into cutesy humor or trite melodrama before the cast even reached the city limits for their weekend getaway. Instead, the film captures an uncomfortably blunt and affecting truthfulness about the age of its two main characters and the conflicting impulses therein. When a random character drives by Luke helping Kate move her couch and calls her his girlfriend, the audience is as offended as the slow-boiling protagonists ready to overflow on the egregious stranger’s mistake.
As Luke, Johnson is able to deconstruct his smirking archetype on the always-sunny New Girl. Luke is over 30, but happy to coast with his 21-year-old girlfriend, pretending like he still has an eternity to make a decision about his best friend. Yet, the stress of indecision cannot hide behind even his thickest beard when doubt and trouble starts to creep from the dutifully impatient Chris to the not-so-passive Jill.
In supporting player roles, Kendrick and Livingston are fine in their budding dissatisfaction, with Kendrick especially bring a soft-spoken indignation to a role that could be mistaken for timidity on the page.
Of course, this may simply be due to the actors never seeing them. The film’s greatest authenticity suffers from its biggest self-imposed hurdle: That it is too lifelike. Drinking Buddies surely attempts to achieve the feeling of grabbing a drink with your oldest friend, and the awkwardness between those two who are always stealing glances. However, the flipside is that it is a little too much like being there. We are with four friends—or at least three friends and one tag-along—who mostly know each other intimately, making the camera feel like a fifth wheel interloper. And as the film continues, that distance is filled in with an indifference to the plight of these people who really need to order some water.
Fortunately, the movie is buoyed by its best performance from Ms. Wilde. The actress has never been better than as the interminably hot-and-cold best friend who must look everywhere for her life, except right in front of her. The self-denied despair of that is always present even if it is papered over by the carefully crafted smiles and contrarian joy that comes with being anywhere but in the bedroom you want. Indeed, when Luke crashes at Kate’s after helping move her stuff, the fact that she has to steal her first real moment of happiness by squeezing in beside him is heartbreakingly pathetic.
Unfortunately, much as Kate’s mood swings erratically with each new beverage of choice she has far too often (working at a brewery is a seriously great way to hide a problem), so too does the movie’s level of enjoyment. The actors are always captivating in the way they totally inhabit their characters, but eventually even a fly on a wall will want to buzz on well before the awkward pauses end.
Den of Geek Rating: 2.5 out of 5 Stars