The American mumblecore movement has found itself at a crossroads of late it would seem, ironically caught in its own adolescent identity crisis. Whilst many of its alumni such as the Duplass brothers and Lynn Shelton have started taking life seriously, growing up and pursuing other creative avenues, the sub-genre now appears to be seated at the children’s table of Neo-American counter culture. Looking to get in on the action, Joe Swanberg has teamed up with Olivia Wilde, New Girl’s Jake Johnson and Anna Kendrick to create his boozy anti-rom-com Drinking Buddies (2013), a far more polished and neatly packaged example of his lo-fi sensibilities.
Luke (Johnson) and Kate (Wilde) are co-workers at a small Chicago microbrewery. They spend their days flirting and toying with each other, whilst their evenings are spent boozing with their colleagues before going home to their respective partners. On the surface, the pair seem perfect for each other, both sharing the same puerile humour and fondness for real ale. However, it’s that very weakness for the devil’s juice that begins to blur the lines between friendship and romance, with Luke and Kate both left to question the compatibility of their separate relationships, both seemingly held back by safe, comfortable partners that threaten to drag them into a bland adulthood of country hikes, wedding plans and organic vegetarian lasagne.
Working with a loftier budget and more recognisable faces has taken nothing away from Swanberg’s unique take on intimate tales of adolescent confusion. The film’s dialogue remaining just as naturalistic and agile, yet at the same time purposefully clumsy, effectively representing the emotional disorientation of the characters. Conversations are often held in stasis, leaving the audience with plenty of time to distinguish the irony from real emotion. Drinking Buddies is ultimately Wilde’s movie, and it’s here where many of the film’s issues lie. Her performance as a detestable hipster socialite is perfectly handled, but the character created for her exceeds this envisioned degree of obnoxiousness. She drinks with the boys, has the body of a supermodel, looks amazing in the morning and will never ask you to tidy up.
Downing pints left right and centre, no one every approaches our carefree band of boozers to once question their drinking habits, instead taking a dangerously blasé approach to alcohol with Wilde’s exotic, movie star beauty an impossible by-product of consuming so much stout and porter. Commendable for avoiding clichéd rom-com tropes and deciding to take a meditative study on the possibilities of infidelity rather than the consequences, Drinking Buddies still feels inconsequential. The structural fuzziness and erroneous professional gleam applied to Swanberg’s latest endeavour can’t disguise the fat that, in the cold, sober light of day, this is one ugly, smug mess.
This review was originally published on 17 October 2014 as part of our London Film Festival coverage.