Romance on screen usually ends with two mismatched people discovering how made for each other they truly are. They’ll meet, hate each other from the get-go, but their paths are destined to overlap across various set pieces until the inevitable romance blossoms. The central relationship in Drinking Buddies (2013, 90 mins) flies in the face of convention and introduces us to two friends — one male, one female — who are attracted to each other from the start although see themselves as just being friends.
Kate (Olivia Wilde) and Luke (Jake Johnson) both work in a Chicago microbrewery. Their working day — apart from work — consists of joking, chatting, and drinking beer. When the working day is over the brewers head on a busman’s holiday to the pub where they play pool and down beers. The chat and jokes go on and it seems obvious, as Kate and Luke gravitate to each other, that the stars have their future all sewn up.
The problem is that both are in separate relationships. It’s early days for Kate and Chris (Ron Livingston), who seem slightly mismatched, his serious nature uncomfortable against her free spirit. Luke and Jill (Anna Kendrick) also appear wrong for each other as their wedding plans are in the process of becoming more concrete. During one weekend they stay at a beach house where these different personalities align themselves. Platonically, of course. But it sets in motion the impetus that buzzes along in the background of this film.
There’s little cinematic about Drinking Buddies. No big explosions. No thrilling twists. Instead it feels an intimate invitation into its characters’ world where we observe their minutiae. It’s a realistic take on relationships, the conversations between friends, colleagues, and partners delving into their thoughts and worries. Throw alcohol into the mix — and barely a chat goes by without a beer in hand — and we get a loosening of tongues that allow the conversations to go beyond where they would sober. The beer may bring crazy impulses or thoughts to the forefront of minds, but the characters are never too drunk to overstep boundaries. The silences that pepper conversations as they hold back are both reflective, real, and weighed down with truth.
Perhaps much of the real feel comes from its lack of script. While director Joe Swanberg knew where he was going with his story (scenes, development, etc) the dialogue was left to the actors to improvise. Wilde and Johnson have an obvious chemistry as they improvise and it helps with warming to their characters. Best of all is how we gradually see the disintegration of our expectations. While we expect Kate and Luke to shake off their complications and come together what we are instead given is more information that helps us see how unsuited they actually are (Luke’s life is structured while Kate seizes the day) even if they don’t see it themselves.
While Drinking Buddies may be boring to some, it has enough happening in its story to hold interest. Although billed as a romantic comedy it plays as nothing of the sort, instead coming across as a slice of life (well, lives) at crossroads and the decisions that need to be taken, be they grasped by the characters themselves or forced by circumstance. Its focus on relationships forces us to consider whether men and woman can truly just be friends without the sexual attraction that inevitably bubbles under. That line is definitely blurred but there’s an ironic twist in that, through alcohol, things come to seem much clearer.