When Luke met Kate: Can drunk men and women ever be just friends?
Watching Joe Swanberg’s new film Drinking Buddies is a bit like spending a summer evening out having beers with friends. The beers are cool and tasty, the company is good, the conversation can run the gamut from light, playful, and flirty to serious and intense, and the whole experience is decidedly pleasant. Of course, when you awake the next morning, you may only have a hazy recollection of having had a nice time, and by day’s end, you probably will have forgotten much of what transpired. But that’s not to say the diversion wasn’t worth it.
And so it is with Swanberg’s new feature, his most mainstream yet. One of the pioneers of the indie mumblecore movement (see Hannah Takes the Stairs, LOL, Alexander the Great, and Uncle Kent), Swanberg here has cast relatively big names (Anna Kendrick, Ron Livingston, Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson, and even Jason Sudeikis) in his story of the complicated romantic lives of two co-workers at a Chicago craft brewery.
The co-workers are Kate (Wilde) and Luke (Johnson, of New Girl fame). Kate is one of the few women employed at the brewery, working in the front office for boss Gene (Sudeikis) doing marketing/PR type work. Luke is one of the brewers, and the two have an easy camaraderie and flirtatious rapport that feels so natural and palpable that you instantly wonder “will they-or-won’t they” as soon as they appear on screen. The question is complicated by the fact each is in a relationship – Luke with his long-term, live-in girlfriend, Jill (Kendrick), who is pressuring Luke on the marriage issue, and Kate with slightly older music producer Chris (Livingston), who seems a bit more sophisticated and settled than the rest of the quartet.
The foursome develops a friendship, even spending a weekend away together at a lake cabin, where attractions and alliances shift uneasily, and bonds and secrets form. The rest of the movie explores the changing, volatile dynamics of these central relationships, set against a backdrop of mass alcohol consumption, which, of course, both helps and hinders the flirting and serious talks.
Writer/director Swanberg has essentially made an updated version of When Harry Met Sally for the Gen Y set, proving that the can-men-and-women-ever-be-friends question is just as relevant today as it was a generation ago, if not more so, especially in the age of casual hook ups, group dates, and informal workplaces. Swanberg brings fresh nuances to this age-old story of sexual tension, eliciting terrific performances from his cast. Wilde displays equal parts vulnerability and toughness as Kate struggles to understand both her relationship with Chris and her friendship with Luke. And Johnson deftly portrays the insecurity and confusion of a likable guy who sincerely wants to do the right thing, but isn’t sure what to do with feelings that may get in the way of that. Kendrick also brings a level of complexity to Jill, a character with a sweet disposition who is brighter and more self-aware than she initially seems. Livingston’s Chris is perhaps the most underwritten of the group, but Livingston rises to the occasion in pivotal scenes, bringing depth and understanding to the role.
Swanberg’s film, then, feels genuine and honest, and has a voyeuristic quality that will make you curious to know how things turn out for all the characters. But you may find that viewing the film is sort of like eavesdropping on a couple at a bar – it’s fun to listen for a while, but pretty soon you’re ready to leave them to their issues (and their beers), and head out with your own friends to sober up. What you overheard, while interesting, will soon become just a boozy memory.
Drinking Buddies opens in Bay Area theaters today.