Sunday, September 8, 2013

Drinking Buddies (***)

Written and Directed by Joe Swanberg


Alas, the days of Mumblecore seem numbered. So long ago seem the days of The Puffy Chair and Funny Ha Ha, when wannabe actors like Mark Duplass and Andrew Bujalski were taking matters into their own hands, writing and directing their own scripts and producing charming films on the ultra cheap (and made to look ultra cheap as well). These days, the Duplass brothers are making movies with Jonah Hill and John C. Reilly, and Greta Gerwig - the reigning Mumblecore actress queen - is now headlining the widely released Frances Ha. Joe Swanberg is perhaps the most prolific of the Mumblecore movement, usually making about 2-3 features a year since 2008's Hannah Takes The Stairs (staring Gerwig). Swanberg's latest film, Drinking Buddies, is his first with a major movie star - Olivia Wilde - and the first to have a cast of predominantly name actors, following the trend set by his other brothers in this, the most bedhead-y form of cinema.

The Drinking Buddies in question are Kate (Wilde) and Luke (Jake Johnson), friends and co-workers at Revolution Brewing, a small craft brewery in Chicago. Kate and Luke frequently lunch together, have drinks after work and are so completely comfortable around each other that you'd be convinced that they were made for each other, except that both are in their own separate relationships. Luke is engaged to Jill (Anna Kendrick), a sweet, petite graphic artist who's ready to turn the engagement into a marriage. Kate has been dating Chris (Ron Livingston) for several months and she finally gets up the courage to bring him around to a workplace event to meet her work friends. Kate and Luke have been able to stir the ship through their own numerous flirtations, avoiding any slips into actual infidelity. But when Kate's relationship with Chris takes a sudden downturn, and Kate wildly and drunkenly invites single ladyhood, suddenly the temptation seems harder to fight then ever.

The film's slightly hackneyed plot line takes unexpected turns throughout, careful not to become an offbeat indie version of When Harry Met Sally... and instead grasp it's own identity. It's obvious that Swanberg has great control over this cast, allowing them to improvise freely and create a chemistry with each other that brings out the film's very best moments. Indeed, if Drinking Buddies succeeds in anything, it succeeds in creating such discomfort through its familiarity. Anyone met with temptation while in a relationship (AKA everyone) will probably squirm with anxiety during a sequence when Luke and Jill decide to join Kate and Chris for a cabin weekend in the woods near the beach. The actions that Kate and Luke take - with their significant others just in the other room - fall just short of actual betrayal, but skirt the line so closely that you realize that you don't have to be physical to be unfaithful. That Drinking Buddies toes this line through most of the movie without becoming unbearable is a feat in itself.

But almost anything that works in this movie is owed to the cast. This is the first time I've ever seen Wilde inhabit a role that was not some version of the male protagonist trophy. She plays Kate as the exact kind of woman that can get a man like Jake in trouble: an emotional mess, heartbreakingly insecure, yet vibrant and funny, someone who knows how to be both the life of a party and the corporate face of a brewery. It's a terrific part in and of itself, but Wilde really digs her toes in, giving a performance that I don't think I ever imagined coming from her. Opposite her, Jake Johnson's Luke is an easy-going, sarcastic nice boy who's so intelligent in how he deals with everything, yet still finds himself falling into Kate's traps. It's Luke's realizations about Kate throughout the film that pack the film's biggest emotional punches and Johnson maneuvers these realizations tremendously. As Jill, Luke's doting fiance, Anna Kendrick continues to show that there is little she can't do as an actress, and that she can do almost anything well.

Like most films in the Mumblecore tradition, most of the dialogue is built on a foundation of improvisation, which complements all of these performances greatly - with the exception of Ron Livingston who spends most of the movie looking like a slack-jawed, hungover zombie; maybe it's because he's fifteen years older than the rest of the cast (thoughts from my girlfriend: "He was just this guy who stood around and said stuff occasionally."). I was aware of Johnson's chaps at improv as shown on the television show New Girl, on which he is consistently the funniest character. It's Wilde and Kendrick who embrace the strategy so surprisingly well. For Wilde, her ability to keep up with Johnson and his frequent one-liners is both impressive and instrumental in showcasing the strong bond between Kate and Luke. For Kendrick, the way she uses improv to display both anxiety and guilt (several scenes between her and Johnson are as tense as any Hollywood thriller) really brings an aspect of heart to the film that it would have dearly missed otherwise.

But again, like most films in the Mumblecore tradition, the film is a visual eye-sore, lacking any form of true visual storytelling and instead depending on shoddy, uninspired handheld camerawork consisting of aimless close-ups of whoever happens to be talking at the time. Which brings me to my biggest issue with how the Mumblecore movement has evolved. Filmmakers, even if they come from humble beginnings, are entitled to more expensive stars in their films as their movies become more popular, but why is it that filmmakers like Swanberg and the Duplass Brothers still insist on making their films look like they were made for ten thousand dollars? In reality, Bujalski is the only one of the group that has stuck by the original plan, and that's why his films don't feel like movie stars slumming for critics' praise. Again, I wouldn't have been too turned off by this aspect of Drinking Buddies if Swanberg had injected the very least amount of cinematic vision and photographic discipline. Instead, all of the responsibility is placed on the actors to liven up the screen - and they do a tremendous job - but at that point, you're essentially making a documentary about actors reading a script.

Alas, I will end my rant on Mumblecore there since I don't want to add too much hate to a review for a film that I sincerely enjoyed. In anything, Drinking Buddies showed us how very charming Olivia Wilde can be when placed in the right part and that Jake Johnson can translate the excellence he's shown on television to movies as well. It was further evidence that Anna Kendrick should (if everything is fair and balanced) have a lengthy, successful performance career, and that Ron Livingston's career should have ended a lot sooner after Office Space, over a decade ago. I still don't think much of Joe Swanberg as a director, but he does know how to handle his cast (including himself, who plays a very small but important role near the end of the film), and it's impressive that he showed this same chemistry with name actors that he did with his buddies in Mumblecore's earliest days. Drinking Buddies really does show us both the best and worst that Mumblecore still has to offer us these days.

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