MOVIE REVIEW: Drinking Buddies



There's 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 twenty 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.  After all, you're only human.  Add alcohol and you become a little less than human.

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 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 new Video On Demand release from Magnolia Pictures, Drinking Buddies, gives us one of those clever guessing games for a while and offers talented performers to watch in the process.  The film is available now and will be hitting theaters in limited release across the country later this month after being picked up for distribution at the 2013 South by Southwest Film Festival.

Olivia Wilde, whose averaging five films a year since 2011, including Tron: Legacy, Cowboys and Aliens, The Change-Up, In Time, and The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, stars as Kate.  She's the one-woman PR/marketing department for a Chicago microbrewery (filmed at Revolution Brewing, a real-life microbrewery found in the trendy Logan Square neighborhood), run by Gene Dentler (an uncredited Jason Sudeikis, Wilde's real-life fiance).  She's the only "girl" 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 of Safety Not Guaranteed and TV's The New Girl, who's 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.  The are extremely comfortable with each other, bust each others' balls, and hang out everyday at cool jobs.  On paper, they're perfect for each other.  The problem is they are both seeing someone else.

Kate is in an eight-month, wait-and-see relationship with Chris (Office Space's 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 (Pitch Perfect's Anna Kendrick, the resident Oscar nominee).  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.

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 the 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 suspense creep into the romance or comedy setting.

To its great credit, Drinking Buddies never settles for any of those obvious scenarios and twists.  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've seen this kind of movie before, don't materialize like you think.  Some don't materialize at all.  The waters are murkier than first thought.  If you prefer your movies predictable and formulaic, you've come to the wrong place.  At the same time, it's still missing a bit of the charm it promised with its setup.

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 talented up-and-comers playing against type.  He is one of the so-called pioneers of the "mumblecore" film genre of naturalistic and improvisational dialogue and toned-down production values.  The label suits 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.

This is easily the most vibrant and assertive Olivia Wilde has been to date.  Too often, she's stuck as eye candy and arm candy in her movie roles.  Here, she actually gets to lead the show and she's very engaging.  Jake Johnson, normally a chatterbox of sarcasm and quips, plays a very reserved and dedicated guy behind that beard.  He too is impressive to see doing something different.  They 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.  Also, the film is marketed as a fun-loving buddy comedy, but the big laughs are scarce and it spends the majority of its time as a bit of a relationship drama more than anything.  Don't worry, it's still far less dramatic than the alcohol-soaked Smashed starring Elizabeth Winstead and Aaron Paul from last year.  Those are its two biggest flaws that keep Drinking Buddies from being really special and must-see.  The positives still outweigh the negatives.  If this sort of thing sounded intriguing, give it a shot if you find it on VOD or soon in theaters.

LESSON #1: BEING FRIENDS WITH UNDERLYING ATTRACTION-- It doesn't take very long into Drinking Buddies to see the underlying attraction between Kate and Luke.  Though they seem perfect for each other.  Neither of them act on it.  They are too good of friends.  As was said in the opening introduction, platonic friendship over romantic attraction is a difficult game of suppression versus respect.

LESSON #2: THE VARIOUS TIPPING POINTS OF LONG-TERM RELATIONSHIPS-- In the film, 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 already have been together long-term and are at the "s--t 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.  Lesson #1 doesn't help matters.

LESSON #3: WHAT HAPPENS WHEN A MOMENTARY SPARK CHALLENGES YOUR COMMITMENT-- Even though I've beaten around the bush avoiding spoilers and touting this movie's non-formulaic path, 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.