Drinking Buddies, a film in which most of the lines are improvised, has something in common with reality television in that it strives for a sort of fly-on-the-wall realism. But where reality TV is largely sensationalist and eventful, Drinking Buddies is nonchalant and unhurried.
Not much happens at all in fact - a cinematic feat that is, for the most part, extremely refreshing (and only occasionally just a little bit dull). The latest flag-bearer for the ‘Mumblecore’ movement, a sub-genre of independent films characterised by naturalistic dialogue and low budget values, it may also be the most mainstream, with very bankable stars (Olivia Wilde, Anna Kendrick) and an appealing romantic chemistry.
Luke (New Girl’s Jake Johnson) and Kate (Wilde, never better than she is here) are co-workers at a Chicago craft brewery. By British standards they drink a fair bit of beer, both at work and at play; by more conservative American standards, they are probably drunkards. In any case, the problem at the heart of the film is not one of health but of the heart. Luke and Kate both have other halves but are clearly infatuated with one another. They laugh, they flirt, they play pool. One wonders, at first, why they have not already “hooked up”. Luke, it turns out, is supposed to be getting engaged, to the sweet and sensible Jill (Kendrick) but when reckless Kate's own relationship, to the debonaire, Merlot-swilling Chris (Ron Livingston), rather predictably fails, the possibility of Luke and Kate finally getting together looms large.
Johnson has said in previous interviews that he suspects Luke and Kate would have made a great couple in their twenties but not in their thirties. Is this what love is, a matter of timing? If this is what writer/director Joe Swanberg (a Mumblecore staple) wants to say, he certainly does so subtly. For much of the film Drinking Buddies meanders seemingly without purpose, its plot as accidental and unpredictable as real life. Wonderfully energetic and persuasive central performances keep it engaging, for the most part, along with a light comic touch and a brutal central honesty about relationships and the way films normally portray them. The familiar romantic comedy set-up in which a boy and girl overcome obstacles before inevitably reaching their happy ending together is a falsehood. If we start at first thinking of these characters in that light it is because we are conditioned by Hollywood to do so.
Can men and women ever be friends? I'm not sure Swanberg gives us an answer but he certainly poses the question in a very interesting way. Drinking Buddies could suffer a little from its marketing, which may suggest to some audiences that it is just a regular rom com. But luckily, it is nothing like that. It is something much, much better.
Screening at the London Film Festival on October 18, 19, 20. Drinking Buddies opens nationwide on 1 November.