Woozy, nimble, earthy, and amiable, Drinking Buddies is a sly slice of bittersweet relationship comedy. Workshopped, and mostly shot in small spaces making terrific use of improvisation, this fresh and rebellious quasi rom-com liberates the glamorous Olivia Wilde (In Time, House) from the shackles of two-dimensional studio fare, reinventing her as a laidback tomboy.
If Jake Johnson (Safety Not Guaranteed, 21 Jump Street), Anna Kendrick (Up in the Air, 50/50), and Ron Livingston (Office Space, The Conjuring) are unsurprisingly persuasive in this setting, Wilde not only quashes any reservations about her aptitude, but just about makes us forget her great beauty through her staunch and subtle portrayal of the selfish Kate, someone trying to find happiness in all the wrong ways. The quartet feels its way around the edges of what they want, exploiting their friends to work out their own issues.
Writer-director-editor Joe Swanberg subverts and even defies expectations: thirty minutes in, the movie resembles a predictable romantic quadrangle on the path to cliché, and then suddenly it goes somewhere much more interesting. He fixates on the minutiae, the feints and thrusts we make in sorting matters of head and heart, and offers disarming doses of both charm and wisdom. He even achieves an occasional heady aura of ad lib flirtatiousness mixed with a will-they-or-won’t-they suspense.
Unscripted, meandering, and devoid of plot (and often dialogue), the film is soberly told, with booze weirdly muting and endlessly deferring the sexual drama. The discourses are totally disposable yet sneakily intelligent, and its top-shelf cast delivers the goods, especially in the dandily understated finale.
Loose, raffish, and ambling, Drinking Buddies won’t change your world, and it’s not something you’re likely to remember, but it’s a three-dimensional narrative with a pair of terrific performances, and its lack of happenstance is more refreshing than off-putting. It is the result of murky attraction and ominous hesitation, built on microexpressions. Courtesy of Swanberg and Wilde, mumblecore has been elevated another notch.