By Simon Miraudo
February 11, 2014
Well! Here’s a movie to not watch with your on-again, off-again partner. Obscenely prolific filmmaker Joe Swanberg, one toe still dangling in the mumblecore waters from which he emerged and the rest of him entrenched with Hollywood’s finest, presents us with a tricky relationship conundrum in Drinking Buddies: is it worse to cheat on someone physically, or cheat on them emotionally? It’s not a new question, to be sure, but writer-director Swanberg has assembled a talented foursome comprised of Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick, and Ron Livingston to wrestle with it in new, interesting ways. FYI, another recent release, Don Jon, has a conversation-starting question of its own: do guys need to give up their addiction to internet porn if they want to have a healthy, monogamous relationship? I’m letting you know in case anyone is attempting to compile a series of ice-breaking flash cards that’ll guarantee an early, awkward end to almost any dinner party.
Of the central quartet, most impressive is Wilde, a good actress whose lone career achievement thus far is being the best thing in a bunch of bad movies. Now she can finally say she’s the best thing in a good one. Wilde plays Kate, a slovenly though still Olivia Wildish-looking tomboy who enjoys a too-comfortable relationship with colleague Luke (Johnson). At the Chicago brewery where they work, the two of them live in one another’s pockets. So, it makes sense that they’d head to a cabin for a weekend getaway with their significant others, right? Luke brings along mousy schoolteacher Jill (Kendrick), with whom he has an ongoing, perpetually-tabled talk about maybe, one day, getting married. Wilde’s boyfriend is a little less serious: the slightly older music executive Chris (Livingston). She pops over to his place whenever she likes, and, after sex, heads back home for sleep. This is as close to commitment as she’s willing to venture. That weekend getaway alters the make-up of each coupling in both seismic and subtle ways.
Is Kate and Luke’s relationship actually all that inappropriate? Does anyone ever call them out for their inappropriateness? Do Jill and Chris react in their own inappropriate way? These are reasonable questions for any romantic comedy involving two seemingly mismatched pairs, least of all one called Drinking Buddies that features a healthy heaping of the titular activity and stars four agreeably attractive people. Johnson, like Swanberg, is a Chicago native, and that comfort with the setting, as well as with his fellow co-stars, is what makes Drinking Buddies feel so honest and lived-in, despite having all the hallmarks of other rom-coms that might hinge on similar (kinda contrived) issues.
It shows us two types of infidelity: one fleeting and physical, the other sustained and emotional. We may be drawn, by habit, to decide which one is worse, or which is acceptable, but Swanberg is smartly focusing instead on the aftermaths and wondering whether or not friendships and relationships can survive the crossing of either line. If a loved one accidentally, unintentionally, idiotically wanders past the point of no return, will we let them take a few steps back and call a ‘do over’? Is the capacity to forgive actually a relationship’s best, most underutilised weapon? Drinking Buddies, with great humour and sensitivity, argues as much. For a film all about the betrayal of those we love the most, Drinking Buddies is a supremely optimistic, warm-hearted picture, with fine, freeing performances from its entire (albeit very small) cast.
Drinking Buddies is now available to stream on Quickflix. It will be available on DVD from April 10, 2014.