Drinking Buddies, the latest feature by prolific writer/director/editor and occasional actor Joe Swanberg—opening this Friday at the Lagoon Cinema and also available via video-on-demand—is probably the biggest feature Swanberg has made to date. It is also is the third film directed by Swanberg in 2013. (One of Swanberg’s 2013 films, 24 Exposures, premiered at Montreal’s Fantasia Film Festival last month, but there’s no word on an official U.S. premiere date yet. I hope it will make its way to a U.S. film festival, ideally in the Twin Cities.)
Since 2005 Swanberg has directed 18 features, starting with his first, the sexually explicit Kissing on the Mouth, where audiences were treated to Swanberg giving himself a “happy ending” in the shower. It provoked plenty of backlash, not because of that scene but because of the entire film. To this day, I cannot decide whether I actually enjoyed watching the film, but it did present an interestingly strange voyeuristic technique that very few filmmakers have pulled off involving explicit sex—especially since it involved Swanberg himself and not another actor. He also got grouped into the “mumblecore” movement with other filmmakers, testing the water of patience and intelligence from many audiences sitting through these almost home-movie-type films. It can be hard to find a clear narrative or even anything remotely interesting going on with these mostly slacker, hipster, and unemployed characters.
It was a few years later that Swanberg found some success with his “mumblecore” filmmaking teaming up with Greta Gerwig and Mark Duplass to make 2007’s Hannah Takes the Stairs, which quite honestly is a complete bore, but it did bring Swanberg some more attention—especially by introducing the world to Gerwig. The two had teamed up on Swanberg’s previous feature, 2006’s LOL, but Gerwig was front and center in Hannah, and people noticed her performance as the highlight of the film. On the other hand, Duplass had just come off the success of his first feature, The Puffy Chair, and Hannah was only his second credited acting gig. Duplass has continued to direct and act in independent and mainstream films, but he may be best known now as playing Pete Eckhart on the FX comedy series The League.
Skipping ahead to 2011, Swanberg made an outrageous six features with the biggest title being Uncle Kent. He also found time to act in eight films, with one being the recently released home invasion thriller You’re Next (still in theaters and worth seeing) along with seven others—and in each of the six films he directed, he cast himself in at least a bit part.
Many of these films I have not seen, and the ones I have have not really made much of an impression on me as a viewer or a critic, so it was somewhat of a revelation to report that Drinking Buddies might be Swanberg’s strongest film to date—and one that actually has some decent production values, featuring a few marquee actors and characters who we can actually root for.
Drinking Buddies stars Olivia Wilde (Ron Howard’s upcoming Rush), Jake Johnson (FOX’s The New Girl), Anna Kendrick (Oscar-nominated Up in the Air), and Ron Livingston (Office Space). Working together at a Chicago brewery, Luke (Johnson) and Kate (Wilde) have a very close relationship, almost to the point where they could be making out on the tap room floor, as they are continuously flirting and drinking at work as well as hanging out outside of work. They seem to touch each more than most opposite-sex friends would, but they are both seeing other people. When the two couples—Johnson and Kendrick’s Jill, and Wilde and Livingston’s Chris—go away for a weekend getaway at Chris’s place, the attraction between Wilde and Johnson seems to hit a high point, only it isn’t the two of them who hit it off. Jill and Chris have a moment together on a hike in the woods; they give in to their own attraction and begin making out. When Jill and Chris decide not to tell Luke and Kate, things seem to be fine with both couples until shortly after the trip one of the couples break up, leaving the other couple unsure how they will deal with the news.
Working again as writer/director/editor (along with a brief cameo), Swanberg creates a comfortable narrative and one with some insight into a platonic friendship, with some clever one-liners especially from brewery boss Jason Sudeikis (explaining the taste of a shot: “It tastes like a burnt condom full of gas”). Swanberg gives his two leads Johnson and Wilde plenty of room to really shine in their best big-screen performances yet. It does not hurt to feature decent cinematography for a change, from Ben Richardson (Beasts of the Southern Wild), who really gives each locale a nice crisp identity—especially in the darker scenes taking place at Chris’s beach house. Swanberg also shows great attention to detail in the semi-crucial third act where the narrative takes a complete 180.
Drinking Buddies might ensue some future drinking games further down the road, with friends gathering around hoisting a pint every time the word “beer” is mentioned. However, Drinking Buddies never losing its footing, making for a wonderful buzz that leaves nothing to regret in the morning.