There’s a volatile fine line when it comes to having platonic friends of the opposite sex. To date myself, just ask Billy and Allison from the old Melrose Place primetime soap from 27 years ago. There’s nothing wrong with being friends, and even best friends, with someone from the opposite sex. However, when you spend that much time with someone and connect with them so well, thoughts have to start crossing minds, on one side or the other, especially if one or the other is single and available. Camaraderie might morph into affection. Banter may shift into flirting. Connection could turn into temptation. Add alcohol, and you accelerate all of those verbs and possibilities.
We’ve seen this kind of story in movies before, but it’s endlessly interesting every time. With the guessing game of “will they or won’t they” going on, this well-worn plot scenario is the closest a comedy or romance film can get to becoming a piece of suspense. You are torn between pining for the attractive non-couple to get together or you are rooting against the mess that could happen. Either way, you’re hooked. The 2013 mumblecore entry Drinking Buddies from director Joe Swanberg and Magnolia Pictures gave us one of those clever guessing games and offered fresh, talented performers to watch in the process.
Olivia Wilde went small in taking this lead role after hitting an “it girl” studio system peak streak that included Tron: Legacy, Cowboys and Aliens, The Change-Up, In Time, and The Incredible Burt Wonderstone. She is Kate, the one-woman PR/marketing department for a Chicago microbrewery run by Gene Dentler (an uncredited Jason Sudeikis, Wilde’s real-life fiance). Drinking Buddies was filmed at the then-fledgling and now trendsetting microbrewery Revolution Brewing. Kate is the only “chick” there but can drink and party like one of the guys. To a ton of men, she’s perfect and she looks like Olivia Wilde.
One of her long-time buddies and closest friends is Luke, played by a bearded Jake Johnson, then hot off the indie gem Safety Not Guaranteed and the growing success of TV’s New Girl. Johnson toned down his manic comedy spirit to play more introverted. Luke is the all-round nice guy brewer/worker on the factory floor. Luke and Kate know each other well, right down to each other’s triggers, quirks, likes, dislikes, and tendencies.
Being friends with an underlying attraction is intriguing and problematic at the same time. These two are extremely comfortable with each other, bust each others’ balls, and hang out every day at cool jobs. On paper, they’re perfect for each other, but neither of them act on it because they are too good friends. The bigger problem is they are both seeing someone else. As was said in the opening introduction, platonic friendship over romantic attraction is a difficult game of suppression versus respect.
Kate is in an eight-month, wait-and-see relationship with Chris (Office Space star Ron Livingston), an older and clearly more successful guy. He’s energized by dating a younger woman, but is commonly uncomfortable with Kate’s immaturity and party lifestyle. Similarly, Luke has been in a long-term relationship with Jill (Oscar nominee Anna Kendrick, just a year after her Pitch Perfect explosion). She does rewarding special education work and isn’t close to the beer lover Luke is. They live together and she has been pushing Luke towards marriage for quite some time.
Kate and Luke have both reached crucial tipping points of their respective dating relationships. Kate and Chris are circling the decision point of whether what they have casually can turn into something more long-term and permanent. Luke and Jill have already been together long-term and are at the “shit or get off the pot” stage of turning their relationship into a married one. Both relationships are tested for their patience, strength, and endurance by these tipping points.
With two existing couples like this and an as-yet-would-be couple that you cross your fingers for and hope to see as an audience, the tendency becomes waiting for the other shoe to fall in movies like this. Once you meet the characters, the obvious possibilities already start the wheels turning in your head. You begin looking for chinks and flaws in the unwanted relationships in hopes that something negative will turn up, causing a break-up, and a window of opportunity for the couple you so desperately want. You also know that movie domino collapse commonly happens when someone makes the first mistake or impulsive decision to ripple the pond. Once again, the elements of light suspense creep into the romance or comedy setting.
To its great credit, Drinking Buddies never settles for any of those obvious scenarios and twists. That’s a bright beauty of its mumblecore tone. It takes a more elusive and challenging route once the couples combine on a double-date weekend at Chris’s lake house. The mistakes, flaws, and opportunities you think are coming, because you think you have seen this kind of movie before, don’t materialize as expected, if at all. The waters are murkier than first thought. If you prefer your movies predictable and formulaic, you’ve come to the wrong place with this subgenre’s flavoring.
Drinking Buddies still offers the prerequisite moment or two involving opportunity, temptation, and/or momentary spark between two people who are clearly attracted to each other but involved in other relationships. They are moments not taken lightly. The heavy part is how these characters either act on those moments, handle them with or without failing, or respond to their challenges, both before and after. That pressure they feel is commitment.
Written, directed, and edited by Joe Swanberg (who has a fun cameo as an angry driver), Drinking Buddies capitalizes on the chance to run with a few ideas and offer solid performances from then up-and-comers playing against type. As one of the pioneers of the mumblecore film genre, the naturalistic and improvisational dialogue reign and play against toned-down production values. These elements suit the unexpected nature of Drinking Buddies. The banter makes the feature fresh and Beasts of the Southern Wild cinematographer Ben Richardson infuses sharp style into uniquely niche urban and domestic settings.
At the time in 2013, this was easily the most vibrant and assertive Olivia Wilde had been in her career, which shamefully came in such an under-watched film. Too often, she stuck out as eye candy and arm candy in her larger movie roles. Here with Swanberg, she actually got to lead the show and she was extremely engaging. Jake Johnson, normally a chatterbox of sarcasm and quips, played a very reserved and dedicated guy behind that beard. He too was impressive to see doing something different. Their swirling wits are a blast to watch together.
Unfortunately, the roles after those two leads in Drinking Buddies are grossly underdeveloped and are a steep drop in quality. We know Anna Kendrick and Ron Livingston have endless charisma to spare, but both have been decelerated to lesser roles as the “other” girl and guy. At the time, Drinking Buddies was marketed as a smiling, fun-loving buddy comedy. The big laughs are scarce and it spends the majority of its time geared as a relationship drama than anything else. Those dashed expectations disappointed many streaming scrollers who tried this movie out because of the talented names involved. That said, Drinking Buddies has aged well and deserves a better-categorized chance to impress more people ready for a different taste. The movie is readily available in streaming form on the Hulu Plus, Hoopla, Kanopy, and Tubi platforms.
In the mumblecore genre, particularly in the efforts from Swanberg, the romantic frustrations of young introverted men (far from an incel level, mind you) have been a calling card on display since his Kissing on the Mouth debut. Sex is an always frank topic, but still distant in its attainability or satisfaction. Commitment phobia is a prevailing trait as well. For many, this vibe of very upfront flaws isn’t all that charming in the traditional romantic sense. Drinking Buddies, to its great credit, doesn’t make this central coupling about conquest. Rather, it is about true, safe, and beneficial companionship. To see these high-minded and mature themes distilled through a female lead is a challenging success.