There's a scene in Joe Swanberg's new film Drinking Buddies, opening this Friday at the Capitol Theatre, in which Luke (Jake Johnson) and Jill (Anna Kendrick) talk about talking about marriage. Luke's a few years older than Jill, but they've been dating for a while and Jill's clearly got commitment issues on her mind. They bumble through their insecurities and allusions to prior (equally oblique) conversations and are sort of drunk and sleepy throughout. The conversation's underlying meta-irony—"I think it'll definitely happen," says Luke, referencing wedding-planning, "if we keep having conversations like this one"—is that it's not really a conversation at all.
Swanberg was one of a handful of indie upstart directors who popularized a stylistic genre dubbed "mumblecore" by the film press. Mumblecore movies were and still are often characterized by ultra-naturalistic dialogue (see above) and generally sloppy technical elements (low production budgets, amateur actors, etc.). A few notable performers have emerged from the movement—Greta Gerwig, Mark Duplass (who also writes and directs), Johnson—but the films are often much more interesting in the way of early works by great authors: things we basically tolerate because of their potential.
With Drinking Buddies, Swanberg has created a film that stands on its own feet and then jumps. It's got all his trademark naturalism and indie charm, but enough structure and scenic vitality to appeal to mainstream moviegoers. Also, there's Olivia Wilde, who appeals to everybody.
Wilde is Kate, your prototypical effortlessly gorgeous hipsterish post-collegiate twentysomething living in Chicago. She's an event coordinator/PR-type at a brewery there (filmed at Revolution Brewing, for those who care) and enjoys an adorable flirtationship with one of the scruffy brewmeisters, the playful, Ruffalo-ish Luke. They joke and jab nonstop and seem like they've got all the ingredients for official itemhood, or at the very least a happy fling.
Only problem is, they're both already involved. Luke's with the slightly younger, slightly sweeter Jill, she of the conversant yearnings (a pitch-perfect Kendrick); and Kate's with Chris (Ron Livingston, quietly thriving as the older guy trying to hang with a younger crowd).
When the foursome takes a weekend trip to Chris' cabin in Michigan, the boundaries of physical and emotional intimacies are tested. The rest of the film charts the unsteady courses that the cabin scenes initiate. Great scenes, by the way.
This is technically a rom-com—sweet and funny and all that—but it's also a mumblecore rom-com, so it's not your average Maid in Manhattan. Rom-coms always end, if not happily, then at least tidily. The formulas are so boilerplate by now that we don't even bother predicting who's going to end up with whom. Within the first 15 minutes, we already know.
In Drinking Buddies, the formula is much more complicated, and it's much more true to life. In some respects, it's difficult to look beyond the fact that all these characters are white and in their twenties and thirties and all went to college and all seem of a cultural piece with myself. As such, they're not only interested in the type of stuff that I am (craft beer, cabins, books) but have been conditioned to view relationships with the same anxiety about long-term commitment that folks our age have been nurturing here lately. Which is to say that these people seem incredibly familiar. Their conversations feel recorded from the nightstands of many of my close friends. My suspicion, though, is that the sentiments and moral conundrums (to say nothing of the stupendous performances) will resonate with those for whom the film is not mirror or crystal ball.