Post-mumblecore rom-com Drinking buddies explores complex relationships

How you feel about Drinking Buddies will entirely depend on how you feel about the mumblecore movement. The ramshackle amateurish art form known for its non-existent budgets often-improvised dialogue and short production time has launched the careers of many indie stars including the Duplass brothers Alex Karpovsky and Joe Swanberg the latter of whom helms this film.

Like they did with Duplass vehicles like Cyrus subgenre purists have already and will continue to balk at Swanberg’s use of actual actors a semi-legit budget and a real cinematographer. If you’re like me however and you see much of the mumblecore movement as a living embodiment of artistic entitlement stemming presumably from over-encouraging parents these factors only strengthen Drinking Buddies .

Though the title suggests a horrible Kevin James/Adam Sandler comedy this film is actually a light indie dramedy that focuses on the emotional politics of sexual and non-sexual relationships between members of the opposite sex.

The film centres on Luke (Jake Johnson) and Kate (Olivia Wilde) two employees at a Chicago-based microbrewery who’ve developed a pretty serious bond. They’re not dating — in fact they’re both in committed monogamous relationships — but they spend their full day at work flirting goofing off and sharing a fairly intimate level of conversation.

One weekend Luke and his long-term girlfriend Jill (Anna Kendrick) head out to a cabin owned by Kate’s older music producer boyfriend Chris (Ron Livingston) where extreme sexual tension and seclusion all but force some minor infidelity.

The only ones who actually break the threshold into physical touch are Jill and Chris who sneak a meaningless kiss in the woods but Luke and Kate are practically fucking each other with late-night bonding that includes a drunken campfire hangout and some secret skinny-dipping. The next day Chris and Kate break up while Jill reminds Luke of their longstanding plans to get married.

As the movie progresses very little happens by way of plot but the film succeeds by maintaining a strong sense of realism. The Upright Citizens Brigade-trained Johnson is a master improviser and even when he’s not going for laughs his abilities help him shine onscreen as a likable guy. This guy made Zooey Deschanel’s saccharine sweet New Girl bearable with his gruff kindness so it’s really no surprise that he can carry this film.

Wilde is also a nice surprise. Following stinkers like In Time The Words and The Incredible Burt Wonderstone it was unclear why she kept getting work. Here she benefits from subtlety playing a pseudo-directionless 30-something unable to stick to her plans. Think manic pixie dream girl but subdued.

Kendrick and Livingston are also serviceable though the latter almost shatters the movie’s realism when he strains to play the role of hip record producer dude describing a band he was working with as “a little bit freak rock” and coming across like a soul-patched cool dad reading Pitchfork out loud in his Scion.

Small missteps like that are nothing compared to the full-body embarrassment chills that can accompany many films of this kind and that’s why this hybrid mainstream-mumblecore (mumbstream?) movie works so well. Factor in some eye-popping visuals courtesy of lens flare-loving cinematographer Ben Richardson (who previously brought Beasts of the Southern Wild to life) and this is a fascinating watch throughout.

As Drinking Buddies builds tension toward an awkward interpersonal blowout and generally ambiguous ending the film feels like it’s not saying much. Still it’s drenched in realistic heartache and emotional realism that asks important questions about how we define relational boundaries what constitutes cheating and the roles that people fill in our lives. Also all of the characters drink a shitload of beer.

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