Directed by Joe Swanberg. Starring Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick, Ron Livingston, Ti West, Jason Sudeikis, Mike Brune, Frank V. Ross. (2013, R, 90 min.)
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., Sept. 13, 2013
Joe Swanberg built his brand early on the novelty of naked bodies doing unglamorous things like shaving pubic hair and masturbating in the shower. He's still making small-scale, experiential films, but in Drinking Buddies, Swanberg's most polished film to date, his observational prowess has swerved away from shock value and sharpened: Here, a side eye can speak volumes.
It has to, because Swanberg's continued overreliance on his actors to improvise gives the film an "ah, um" verisimilitude but not a single memorable line of dialogue. What lingers, instead, is the body language, which is apropos: Swanberg's body of work is an ongoing study of the body.
Take Kate (Wilde, stretching her legs after so many mere eye-candy roles), the promotions manager for a Chicago craft brewery who is thick-as-thieves with her co-worker, Luke (Johnson, who plays the likably neurotic Nick on Fox’s New Girl). Kate is a hard-drinking, good-times gal quick to laugh, but watch closely: When Luke's girlfriend Jill (Kendrick) meets up with them at a bar after work, Kate smiles with her mouth but not her eyes. Later, Kate will drunkenly bike over to see her boyfriend, Chris (Livingston). She dutifully asks him about his day, but her glassy look tells a different story; the coda comes with her quick exit post-sex.
The two couples go on a weekend retreat together and rejigger the equation: Jill, the youngest of the bunch and a special-ed teacher, goes hiking with Chris, in his 40s and kind of a wet noodle (because wet noodles insist on the use of a coaster), while best pals Kate and Luke pound beer and play cards. There is a palpable sexual tension between both of these not-couples, but only one of them acts on the attraction. That encounter is followed by a lot more inaction, but keep watching those eyes, the nervous fidgets, and lean-ins that tease the line of what is acceptable behavior between men and women who swear they’re just friends: The surface is placid, but the insides are roiling.
Much has been made of the fact that Swanberg has cast for the first time bona fide movie stars and not just his mumblecore pals: In fact, it's the making of the movie. If you're going to build an entire film on microexpressions, then a certain innate magnetism is required. Swanberg gets it in spades from his top-shelf cast.
See “Raise a Glass to Drinking Buddies,” September 6, for an interview with Joe Swanberg.