Buddy Zone, by Scott Nye
The transition from college into real-life adulthood is a subject for which movies have never been in great wanting, and, thanks to the simultaneous rise of an increasing number of wayward twentysomethings alongside new, cheaper technologies, one that has been even more exploited over the past decade. It’s not that Joe Swanberg’s Drinking Buddies is tremendously different from how people understand “mumblecore” – it’s still a whole lot of people in their twenties hanging out and talking – it’s just that it finds a perfect synthesis between plot and character that some of the movement’s other films would never even consider. That, and Jake Johnson goes a long way towards making any movie likable.
Johnson and co-star Olivia Wilde play two employees of a brewery, and the fact that their relationship with heavy drinking has, in all likelihood, barely changed in the years since they would have graduated college is not without note. Each goes home to respective lovers who refuse an offer of a beer even as they reach for their fifth. Or more, who’s to say. Yet Swanberg’s focus is not on their alcoholism, but on how that, and their profession, is representative of a sort of stunted relationship to the world. By working in a beer factory, they’ve essentially found a way to live their college years 24/7, never changing their wardrobe, hairstyle, after-hours habits, and, most notably for the film’s purposes, ways of interacting with other people.
I really didn’t know Wilde had this kind of performance in her, so often is she relegated to simply fulfilling the role of “young female” (Cowboys & Aliens, In Time) or almost literally the status of a prop (Tron: Legacy). Here she’s, well, wild, at once intensely afraid of confrontation or any hint of change, yet seemingly unable to have even a basic conversation without tossing in some way to rock the boat (a sexual tease here, a cutting insult there). Kate’s relationship with Luke (Johnson) is beautifully undefined, clearly more than what the title suggests, but clearly less than what both parties attempt at one point or another. One limiting factor is certainly Luke’s live-in girlfriend, Jill (Anna Kendrick), with whom he’s spent several reasonably happy years, but whose absence at a crucial juncture gives him a perceived license to maybe see just how things look from the other side of the hill.
Swanberg’s management of that other side is when the film is really at its peak, as the intimacy Kate and Luke have built up is thoroughly tested in sometimes touching, often funny, and occasionally deeply painful ways. Kate, too proud to let any vulnerability show, acts in ways increasingly destructive not only to herself, but to her relationship with Luke as well. His own complicity in this, at once letting her dictate the terms of their relationship, but also being directly responsible for instigating their sudden closeness, is a nice touch, but Swanberg continually downplays the flaws of his male characters (Ron Livingston plays a supporting role as Kate’s most recent romantic involvement) as he emphasizes those of his women. It’s not a deathly blow to the film, but it does inhibit it somewhat, and reinforces a certain male-centric viewpoint, even as Kate is arguably more of the lead character.
Still, as I noted at the beginning, casting Johnson at that point position helps smooth over a lot of those edges. This is his first real showcase on the big screen, after two years of tearing it up on the sitcom New Girl, and his screen persona – at once intensely at ease and quietly high-strung – is just as effective here. The man simply has chemistry with everyone, and even when his scene partner isn’t as adept with improvisation (Kendrick is a wonderful actress, and her slight inability to keep up with everyone else informs her character, but only to a point), he carries them along and makes them look good, too.
Drinking Buddies is the kind of film that many have been trying to make for the past ten years. It hits all the emotions of the romantic comedy, while remaining slightly outside the genre, a little more grounded than the often frothy, lightweight entries into the genre. While I hope the traditional romantic comedy will continue to return in evermore-grand quality, this is a welcome diversion, and a lovely film all its own.