Reviewed by Ian Forbes
Every year, amidst the heaping pile of celluloid I sort through as a film critic, there seems to be one film that makes a true emotional connection with me. Like anybody, I have cinematic preferences and while I try to balance the objectivity and subjectivity in a style that people enjoy reading, whenever that one film comes along, it turns into a review with more uses of “I” than a Roman numeral convention.
The Spectacular Now is likely going to be that movie for me this year but right on its heels is Drinking Buddies. Directed by Joe Swanberg, he’s also credited with writing it but that’s a bit of a misnomer. He gave his cast (the primary foursome being Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick and Ron Livingston) the basic plot points and had them improvise their way through it. The final film was really created by their choices and in the editing room.
Even if you weren’t as familiar with Swanberg by reputation, reading that description probably leads you to figuring out that this is essentially a mumblecore film. While the production values were actually quite decent and it features some high-profile actors, this does fit into the vein of naturalism and lack of forced plot structure that have come to define the genre.
That’s not to say there’s an aimless or wandering narrative; Far from it. What Drinking Buddies delivers is a snapshot of two couples over a short course of time. Wilde and Livingston are at that make or break juncture and end up spending some time holidaying with Wilde’s co-worker (Johnson) and his girlfriend (Kendrick), the two of whom are attempting to find the right way to have the marriage discussion. Problems arise as everyone begins to realize that the spark of passion might lie more in each other’s significant other than within the established couples.
For all four actors, it’s some of the best acting of their careers. Wilde and Kendrick are especially impressive, not just because I’m a man (ish) and they’re stunningly beautiful women. These are characters neither have portrayed before and it shows off ranges previously kept in check for the most part by fairly stereotypical wife/girlfriend roles. Johnson and Livingston are in excellent form as well and in a film so focused on the chemistry among its cast, their contributions are not to be taken for granted.
Surprisingly, it wasn’t until the film had ended and I took some time to sort through it all that I came to raise my esteem for the project to the level I have. This isn’t breaking new ground or setting the cinematic world on fire with anything in particular. It’s the sum of its parts that will have me coming back to watch it time and time again. The self-destruction, introspection, and indecision evident in the characters is completely identifiable to most people and it had me grinding the gears and cogs within my head long after I had left the theater.
I’m going to be interested in talking with people who have seen it as well to see if they came to the same conclusion I did about the future of the characters. In some ways it was established but in others I question whether the audience is supposed to infer whether their choices will work out or if I’m just infusing far too much of myself into it all and coming away with an unintended result. I’m okay with that, it makes the experience something even personal (kind of like how I end Say Anything right after John Cusack is done blaring Peter Gabriel’s In Your Eyes and haven’t actually watched the real ending in years now).
I hope that Drinking Buddies finds an audience. It’s actually attempting to explore the human condition. I’m constantly frustrated that the market is dominated by escapist entertainment, and while I like escapism every now and then, it’s nice when something like this comes along and asks people to stop and take stock of their own lives. Hopefully, having the cast that it does, more people will be exposed to mumblecore and look to explore more options. I’ll start you off with three recommendations: Quiet City, Douchebag, and Swanberg’s own Hannah Takes the Stairs. After seeing all three of these, you’ll either come over to my side of the street on the genre or you won’t; and it’s okay either way but keeping an open eye out for new experiences in cinema should be the goal of any true film lover.
Drinking Buddies is rated R for language throughout.
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