SXSW Film Review – Drinking Buddies
As a fan of independent film, I’m excited when I’m introduced to the work of noteworthy filmmakers. For several years now, I’ve been hearing about the prolific career of Joe Swanberg and have been curious to check out his movies. Finally at SXSW this year, forces aligned and I was able to check out his latest project, Drinking Buddies, and saw how hype met reality.
The story follows friends Luke (Jake Johnson) and Kate (Olivia Wilde), who spend all day hanging out together at the brewery where they work and then hang out after at bars. As they enter into romantic relationships, entanglements ensue and they are forced to question whether they will be able to remain friends.
Before seeing this movie, I mostly knew of Joe Swanberg by reputation. He is a prolific filmmaker, having directed almost a dozen films in the last five years. As if that isn’t enough, he’s done a significant amount of acting as well. While successful and proficient, Swanberg hasn’t gained the notoriety of a lot of his contemporaries (Mark Duplass, Greta Gerwig, Lynn Shelton), but he has been equally influential in the evolution of mumblecore. Much like the genre itself, he seems to get a bit of a ding because a lot of his work may be perceived as “cheap” due to the low budgets and focus on improvisation. Fair or not, his level of productivity is obscene, regardless of the genre. Swanberg definitely seems to be on an upswing, having worked on last year’s V/H/S and now tackling his most “Hollywood” project yet, with a star-studded cast. Even with a bigger project, Swanberg still maintains his focus on character-driven movies, and it will be interesting to see how he continues to fuse that into his work as he continues to grow in prestige. The progression in Drinking Buddies feels completely effortless, as it reinforces his skill as a director in doing mumblecore movies not for cheapness of them, but for filling a niche of storytelling that he saw the market was lacking.
It is a treat to get to see Jake Johnson in a lead role; he deserves to pop theatrically. Sure, he has been doing well on New Girl, but that is mostly known for Zooey Deschanel’s quirky humor. In film he has been doing tremendous work in large or small supporting roles (Safety Not Guaranteed, 21 Jump Street) due in large part to being so versatile in transitioning between drama and comedy. His chemistry with Wilde feels totally natural; you don’t just understand why they would be friends, but you want to be friends with them, too. Likewise, Wilde is great; though she is frequently seen in dramatic parts (House, Tron: Legacy, The Words), it is impressive to see how funny she can really be. Add in supporting roles for Anna Kendrick, Ron Livingston, and Ti West, and you’ve got a pretty well rounded and deep cast.
For an indie comedy, the film is impeccably well shot. This is in large part due to the fine cinematography from Ben Richardson, who is coming off of his Independent Spirit Award-winning work in Beasts of the Southern Wild. The film takes advantage of his skill by using a wide selection of environments and color palettes (from the outdoors to the brewery interior, there are bright and vibrant to muted colors, daylight and nighttime). Richardson is certainly going to be a name that becomes very well known in the near future; he provides impressive bang for the buck. Odds are his indie work should be enjoyed while it can be, because he is certainly going to be swallowed up by the studio system in the near future.
The success of the film is going to live or die with how people respond to the plot line, which it is fair to say is on the lighter side. The film probably wouldn’t be described as being mumblecore due to its solid production values, but it is still mumblecore in spirit. This is truly a character-driven movie, because if you don’t engage with Johnson or Wilde, it is hard to want to care. This is the kind of movie you keep expecting to have a twist, but it never really materializes. It is probably more honest and realistic that way, but that also means it is not the most dramatic or theatrical. My general rule of thumb, which I’ve come to call ‘The Very Bad Things Rule,” is that for character-driven movies, if none of the characters are likeable, it is hard to like the movie. Thankfully, Drinking Buddies has a surplus of riches, as everyone is engaging (yet they all have flaws), and that makes it easy to watch the movie with or without an elaborate narrative.
Drinking Buddies isn’t going to make waves—it just isn’t that kind of movie. It is great for a viewing or two, but it certainly doesn’t have a timeless quality to it. That isn’t to say it isn’t good and worth your time. This is a movie of potential, this is a launchpad, this is a movie that several years from now you will look back and say, “wow, they were all in that movie together?” It’s a glimpse at a magic 8 ball, and a fun ride at the same time.
Final Grade: B+