'Drinking Buddies' may have a cast full of popular film and TV actors, it might have a bigger budget and a more accomplished cinematographer, but it is still a Joe Swanberg movie through and through. As in previous works by the prolific independent filmmaker like 'Hannah Takes the Stairs' and 'Alexander the Last,' the plot advances glacially. The characters ramble, mumble and stammer in the extreme. The primary conflict in this movie is the protagonists' absolute inability to tell each other how they really feel beneath their flirtations and small talk.
Five years ago, Swanberg would have made this movie with himself in the lead role, alongside Greta Gerwig, Mark Duplass, and Ry Russo-Young. Now he's got big-name talent: Jake Johnson, Olivia Wilde, Ron Livingston, Anna Kendrick, and even Jason Sudeikis in an uncredited supporting role. But even with all those names behind him, I think I might have preferred the low-budget version. It almost certainly would have been shorter and tighter (most of Swanberg's earlier works run under 80 minutes; this one's over 90), and the high-wattage stars and low-wattage plotting make for an occasionally uncomfortable combination.
Discomfort of another sort drives the film. Kate (Wilde) works at Sudeikis' microbrewery, and spends most of her downtime on the job palling around with a scruffy co-worker named Luke (Jake Johnson). Their relationship is an endless parade of beer-fueled flirtation; shared lunches, inside jokes, giggles, hugs and smooches. But Kate and Luke aren't a couple; in fact, they're both committed to other people. After Kate and the boys from work drink the night away, she shacks up with Chris (Livingston), while Luke lives with bubbly Jill (Anna Kendrick). Kate finally introduces Chris to Luke and Jill, and the foursome decide to take a vacation together. When the couples swap partners for an afternoon's entertainment, the sexual tension begins to simmer.
Things never quite rise to a boil, though. Swanberg's found an interesting angle on the thin line between friendships and relationships, but not enough variations on that angle. Wilde and Johnson certainly have a natural, easy chemistry together, and the peaks and valleys of their unspoken attraction are amusing. But they're also a bit repetitive; you can only tease something for so long before it starts to get tiresome. Swanberg and his cast pound the same note over and over. As a result, 'Drinking Buddies' looks like a brilliant short film stretched to feature length.
At least it also looks good. Swanberg partnered with cinematographer Ben Richardson, fresh off his Spirit Award-winning camerawork on 'Beasts of the Southern Wild,' to bring a newly polished look to his previously ramshackle visuals. The approach pays off; the crisp, bright images compliment and flatter the cast, and the way Swanberg and Richardson play many scenes in wide shots and masters, allow the characters' body language to speak louder than their frequently inarticulate dialogue.
Swanberg's assembled a really funny group of actors here, but his signature improvisatory style doesn't give them many opportunities to tell actual jokes (perhaps not too surprisingly, Sudeikis finds the biggest laughs). The characters are constantly drinking and teasing each other, and there's a lot of laughter onscreen, but I rarely felt the urge to join in. I've liked a lot of Swanberg's earlier movies, and I wanted to like this one. Mostly though, I felt like the only sober guy at a kegger. Everyone but me seemed to be having a lot of fun. After an hour, I was ready to go home.
'Drinking Buddies' premiered at the 2013 SXSW Film Festival.
Matt Singer is a Webby award winning writer and podcaster. He currently runs the Criticwire blog on Indiewire and co-hosts the Filmspotting: Streaming Video Unit podcast. His criticism has appeared in the pages of The Village Voice and Time Out New York and on ‘Ebert Presents at the Movies.’ He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, dog, and a prop sword from the movie ‘Gymkata.’