Film: Drinking Buddies

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Drinking Buddies | Director Joe Swanberg | Score: 6.5

My dear mother-in-law is fond of tweaking me by asking “Why would anyone watch that?” when the subject of difficult/depressing and/or violent films comes up. It’s the kind of vexing question that sends the appreciators of a given art-form into conniption fits of exasperation. The simple answer, which I usually say through clenched teeth and my wife’s restraining hand resting not so gently on my shoulder, is that film, like any other art, has only one main job to do — to reflect us back to ourselves in a such a way that we see something more clearly and profoundly than we could have of our own accord — and the most beautiful thing about it is that this knowledge can come in almost any form and in any manner that makes sense to us as individuals.

I bring this up because the films of Joe Swanberg, and others of his neo-realist ilk, are questioned in exactly the same way, albeit for entirely different reasons. Swanberg, one of the original mumblecore practitioners of the early aughts, finds his muse in what big-budget studio films consistently ignore: The simple, banal details of our daily lives. His films don’t have mutant viruses, epic wars or overwrought drama. Like the beloved Dogme movement of the ’90s, they instead find simple, moving drama in our regular day-to-day lives. In essence, they are the quintessential films in which “nothing happens,” but only in the sense that we are all so soaked in Hollywood storytelling conventions, anything short of a driving, risible climax feels peculiar and unfulfilling to us.

His latest micro-opus takes place largely in an independent Chicago brewery (and those looking for a sterling simile for the big studio/little studio dichotomy can now rest easy) where Kate (Olivia Wilde), a pretty, vivacious young woman who works as the sole marketing arm of the company, makes flirty fun with Luke (Jake Johnson), one of the brewmasters. They enjoy the kind of reckless, silly relationship in which one is constantly bumping the other, or stealing their French fries.

The thing is, they both have significant others: Kate has Chris (Ron Livingston), a somewhat older music producer who drinks water out of a wine glass; and Luke has Jill (Anna Kendrick), a sweet special ed teacher with whom he lives. On one fateful weekend the two couples alight to Chris’s lakeshore house, where certain relationship doom awaits them.

Or does it? Swanberg isn’t after some kind of facile moral epiphany about the nature of our duplicity, or a Woody Allen-esque comic infidelity bender, he’s going for something a good deal more subtle; he’s not cooking with cayenne over an open flame, he’s adding small shakes of cumin to bring out the more subtle flavors in his characters.

And a food analogy is particularly apt, seeing as how most of the film’s most insightful character development all happens with them eating, either with the way Chris happily shares his dinner with Kate when she pops over at his apartment, or in the manner that Kate, ever voracious, looks so much forward to her silly, antic-filled shared lunches with Luke at the company cafeteria. As you might expect for a film based in a brewery, a great deal of beer is also consumed, and also allows us key access points for the characters’ motivations.

Amazingly enough, Swanberg has created this energizing set-to using only the various improv skills of his actors. Each scene was reportedly only broadly sketched out before the actors took their positions and performed for the camera. He’s certainly not the only director who works in this fashion — his fellow mumblecorians (?) the Duplass Bros. also write a script only to chuck it away when the cameras are actually rolling — but to get such subtle and comprehensive performances from his actors suggests a director who has an extremely well-honed sense of nuance and continuity.

As you can imagine, where improved films generally fail is when plot intercedes with their character renditions. It’s awfully hard to do Chinatown on the fly, it turns out. But since Swanberg’s storyline moves in such an opaque manner, it frees his actors to focus on the personalities and temperaments of the bodies their inhabiting, which, done properly, can be every bit as exhilarating to watch as it must be to perform.

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Piers Marchant is a Philly-based writer and editor, and the EIC (and film critic) for two.one.five magazine (215mag.com). His reviews can be found on 215mag.com and his tumblr blog, Sweet Smell of Success.  You can also follow him on twitter @kafkaesque83.

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