There is no way that Joe Swanberg, the writer and director of Drinking Buddies, did not write the entire thing based on personal experience. This little movie really sneaks up on you, with its lack of plot and its cup-runneth-overing of unsaid emotions. At times, it’s hard to watch, but it’s also admirably understated and cute. If you like the actors, you’ll do just fine.
Here’s the simple premise: Two very flirtatious, close coworkers, Kate (Olivia Wilde) and Luke (Jake Johnson) go to a cabin with each of their significant others, Chris (Ron Livingston) and Jill (Anna Kendrick). The coworkers don’t kiss, but the significant others do. It’s not clear why Chris and Jill are attracted to each other; maybe they both sense the attraction between Kate and Luke, and are coping, or trying to make an eventual breakup easier and cleaner, or maybe they’re just in the moment. It’s never explained, which I like, because that’s far more realistic than the “big conversation” that movies depict. I’ve rarely had a big conversation; floating in never-never land is a lot more relatable to me. It’s about time that discomfort is depicted by actors on a screen, and with just as much discomfort.
The chemistry between Wilde and Johnson is so great, and I have several theories about why. One, which is the most probable, is that Johnson might be the easiest person to have sexual chemistry with on-screen. (Even with that stupid, unnecessary beard and ugly tattoo! Come on!) Zooey Deschanel is gorgeous without oozing sexuality, which must be kind of odd to play against, and yet he does it with aplomb. Olivia Munn is gorgeous without oozing personality, which also must be kind of odd to play against, and yet he also did that with aplomb. Lizzy Caplan… she’s perfect, so my argument is flawed there. Anyway. My point is that Jake Johnson’s got some impossible-to-pinpoint quality about him that makes him so much fun to flirt with for whomever he gets to flirt with. Bravo, JJ. Two is that Kate is, as Ti West’s character said, both the prettiest and only girl at the brewery. So she wields her power very well, and without too much effort. She’s the object of every man’s desire, and maybe Luke notices that and tries to be the least creepy, so she latches onto him on a deeper friendship level. Three is that both characters are drunk 2/3 of the time that they interact in the movie, so they’re always happy to see each other. Regardless of the truth, it’s clear that both are superbly good actors, especially in this sort of aimless-late-twenties context. They nail down that (read: my) age group’s inability to nail down anything.
This movie doesn’t glamorize anything, either. The drinking–and there is a lot of it, and the amount of drinking is not dealt with, which is also accurate–is of the beer variety. It’s not attractive. It’s just part of the life that these folks lead at the brewery. It’s not in line with Chris or Jill’s careers; both of them are teachers, and have more structured lives than their partners. The conversations that the couples have about serious matters — marriage, fidelity, jobs — aren’t particularly glib, either. When Luke and Jill talk about “wedding stuff,” for example, they talk about the conversation they’re going to have. It’s excruciating to watch, and sad, and pathetic. And real! None of the lives in this movie are being led down fairy-tale paths. They’re unspecial, unmotivated, unassuming lives, and they all depend on each other to move forward and stay stagnant.
Maybe I’m not giving this movie a good sell, because all I’ve said is how little happens and how immature the characters are. But I think it’s incredibly easy to relate to at least one of the characters, and it’s a bit cathartic to know that, at the very least, Joe Swanberg felt some sort of release as he was writing it. To acknowledge that we all have these roundabout conversations, these ambiguous relationships, these undefinable feelings, is the first step towards clarity, I suppose. A beer or two helps as well.