directors, like Paul Thomas Anderson or Terrence Malick, are notorious for
taking extended periods of time in between films. Others like Woody Allen or
Pedro Almodóvar produce a picture every year or two. And then there’s someone
like Joe Swanberg who releases several films within a single year. Drinking Buddies is currently listed on
IMDB as the man’s second of three pictures to be released this year; he has
another film currently in post-production for release in 2014.
Perhaps it’s unfair to harp on someone who obviously has a passion and the means to produce many films. It’s not as if his contributions are nil given that he has directed vehicles highlighting previously unknown actors, most notably Greta Gerwig and Mark Duplass. And with Drinking Buddies, Swanberg assembles a quartet of actors capable of realizing his thin material. But the overarching feeling here is that Swanberg has effectively played the numbers, releasing film after film before finally getting something that works. The big question is whether or not this effort was realized through Swanberg’s own faculties as a director of skill or if in fact it was led by the hands of his capable cast.
The intrigue of Drinking Buddies’ premise is what immediately drew this Chicago native in. Set largely in Chicago’s Revolution Brewery, the film explores Kate (Olivia Wilde) and Luke’s (Jake Johnson) friendship in the midst of their flourishing relationships with Chris (Ron Livingston) and Jill (Anna Kendrick) respectively. It’s a simple yet effectively-staged film that showcases improvisational acting above all. Kate and Luke’s friendship marks the tension of the film, as Chris and Jill saddle the burdens that punctuate some of the picture’s dramatic touchstones.
Given the relative lack of contemporary Chicago-based films out there, my interest rested in Swanberg’s depiction of the smaller nooks and crannies of the city. It’s something of a compromise that Swanberg opts to make Drinking Buddies resemble a chamber drama than a full-fledged Chicago-based film, but for what it’s worth, the verbal exchanges are a fine substitute. The whole film rests squarely on the shoulders of its quartet of performers. Wilde, Johnson, Kendrick, and particularly Livingston in his small but vital role all amount to an immersive and genuinely interesting exercise.
The structuring and tonal pitches of Drinking Buddies are reminiscent of Eric Rohmer’s Boyfriends and Girlfriends. It’s a commendable effort to aspire for the grounded dramatics of one of the foremost directors of the French New Wave, but Swanberg fails to provide his actors with much more than the flimsiest of dialogue and narrative. Scant plotting aside, Swanberg isn’t actually doing much to contribute to the overall aesthetic. His framing and compositions are stiflingly dull; there’s simply no directorial watermark here. It’s his ensemble that does the heavy lifting while the absent director boozes it up on Chicago’s fine craft brews.