Drinking Buddies, starring Jake Johnson, is a screenwriters’ nightmare, the complete opposite of the major studio screenplay-by-committee schemes. There was no script for Drinking Buddies. In fact, much of the cast — which also includes the beautiful and crass Olivia Wilde, the charming and winsome Anna Kendrick, and Ron Livingston — were only discussing the idea of doing the movie when the director, Joe Swanberg, shot them an email asked them to show up for filming a few days later.
Credit the insane chemistry of the actors, their deft improvisational skills, a smart, original outline from Swanberg, and the inability of the actors to overthink the process for Drinking Buddies’ ability to transcend not only conventional romantic comedy tropes but most mumblecore offerings and capture something real, relatable, and genuine. It is a magnificent film.
Buddies centers on the relationships between the four main characters. Luke (Johnson) and Kate (Wilde) work at a brewery together, where they’ve developed a magnetic, flirty friendship. They’re clearly into each other, and were it not for the fact that they were both otherwise engaged in romantic relationships, they’d have undoubtedly slept together. But here’s the catch: Luke’s fiancee, Jill (Kendrick), is perfect, and although not she’s not the female version of Luke, as Kate is, Jill is nevertheless perfect for him. Although, Luke is still having some difficulties nailing down date a wedding date, he has no desire to endanger his relationship with her.
In fact, early on in the film, Luke and his fiancee spend a weekend in a cabin with Kate and her boyfriend, Chris (Ron Livingston), where Luke and Kate’s mutual crush deepens. From there, Drinking Buddies explores how a flirtation — especially one heightened by a lot of alcohol — can threaten an otherwise stable, loving relationship, and how Luke in particular deals with that temptation. Do you toss aside a great relationship for the potential of an ideal? Or do you resist that temptation and be grateful for the greatness you already have?
Obviously, with no script, Drinking Buddies isn’t a plot-driven movie; it’s not even a character study. It’s a study of a scenario, an exploration of a real romantic situation: Swanberg throws four actors together, gives them a few parameters, and allows them to follow the natural progression of these characters. It’s absurd how well they navigate the challenge. In fact, the lack of script drives the authenticity; the improvisation forces the characters to face the situation as they might in real life, and combined with the actors’ lively natural senses of humor, a sincere, funny, and genuine movie is born.
It doesn’t achieve the heights of last year’s Safety Not Guaranteed, but Drinking Buddies provides another example of what a brilliant actor Jake Johnson is. It’s a great all around cast, but Johnson —- wearing a thick, scraggly beard that still doesn’t disguise his good looks — is the stand-out, perfectly capturing the his characters’ dilemma, choosing between the woman he loves and the woman he could love. There’s never a moment when the audience doesn’t feel the same pull, and thanks to a heavy dose of boyish charisma — Johnson is like a less deranged Charlie Day — he manages the situation while still remaining likable. He’s the lynchpin to the success of Swanberg’s film, and he couldn’t have been a better choice.
Drinking Buddies screened at the 2013 SXSW film festival.