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Review: Drinking Buddies (2013)

Drinking Buddies (2013)

Directed by: Joe Swanberg

Premise: Two brewery coworkers (Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson) spend their days flirting and their nights drinking. When they go on a weekend getaway with their significant others, those relationships are challenged.

What Works: Drinking Buddies was released in 2013 with limited distribution and the advertising campaign for the film made it look like an average and stupid romantic comedy. That was a shame because Drinking Buddies is a much better film than that. This is a nuanced and complicated story and it features remarkable performances by its lead actors. Drinking Buddies is led by Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson, with Wilde as the brewery’s public relations coordinator and Johnson as a brewer. The film is built around Wilde and Johnson’s relationship, as the two tread on the unspoken boundaries that exist between platonic male and female friends, especially when those friends are already in committed relationships. Of the two, Johnson’s character has more obvious conflicts, as he is attracted Wilde’s character but he is also in a stable and long-term relationship with his girlfriend, played by Anna Kendrick. Johnson is fascinating to watch for the subtleties going on beneath the surface of his character; aside from his dueling attractions he also wrestles with his relationships with his coworkers, especially when Wilde’s character beds one of his least favorite people. The way jealousy, regret, and the guilt of recognition of his own desires plays out in his performance makes this a challenging role that flies in the face of the way masculinity is usually presented in the movies. Olivia Wilde is equally strong on screen. Over the course of the film it becomes apparent that her character is a functional alcoholic and Wilde plays this very well. The dependency is smartly underplayed and neither the actress nor the filmmakers give into the clichés of addicted characters. Like Johnson, Wilde’s role is given a lot of layers and complexities. The romantic interplay between the two leads and the way that sexual tension impacts their relationships with their partners makes this a very smart piece. In some respects, Drinking Buddies is to this decade what Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice was to the 1960s or what When Harry Met Sally was to the 1980s in that the filmmakers try to get a handle on the social norms of relationships between men and women.

What Doesn’t: Drinking Buddies is the kind of film that is about the subtleties of the characters. There is a plot but it isn’t very elaborate. That in itself is not necessarily a fault but the filmmakers do miscalculate how little plot they can get away with, and this is especially apparent in the ending. The picture does not really come to a conclusion; it just stops. The finale of Drinking Buddies is somewhat frustrating because the duration of the picture teases the audience along. We wait for Wilde and Johnson’s characters to finally do something decisive about their relationship, whether that means consummation or termination. The movie does not resolve its central conflict and while that is partly the point it ends the film on an unsatisfying note. The filmmaking style of Drinking Buddies is likely to be off-putting to some viewers. These are not necessarily likable people. A lot of movies are built around characters onto who the audience can project their fantasies and desires. Drinking Buddies isn’t that kind of film. Admirably, the filmmakers are trying to challenge the audience and they successfully substitute compelling for likability  but not all audiences are necessarily going to enjoy this film. 

DVD extras: Commentary track, deleted scenes, interviews, featurettes, and a trailer.

Bottom Line: Drinking Buddies didn’t get much attention in its initial release but it deserves to be more widely seen. The picture isn’t as accessible as the typical romantic comedy but it is smart and it features some excellent performances.

Episode: #479 (February 23, 2014)