Alcohol has long been, among other things, a potent social lubricant that is frequently as responsible for as many poorly conceived, ill-advised flings and progressions of harmless flirtations, as it is for the inevitable hangover the next day. In his latest all-improvised feature film, director Joe Swanberg combines his love of craft brewing with the venerable tradition of the workplace crush to deliver the charming slice-of-life dramedy 'Drinking Buddies.'
Swanberg centers his film on two instantly likeable people: Luke (Jake Johnson) and Kate (Olivia Wilde), who each work in different parts of a Chicago-based brewery. While Kate operates as the face of the company (for obvious reasons), arranging various promotional events and generally spreading the word about her company's beer, Luke is more in the background; he's the guy actually making the product Kate's doing her darndest to represent and sell. And while 'Drinking Buddies' is very much a workplace film – there are aspects of brewing popping up here and there – and the characters tend to look incomplete without a tall glass of suds in their hands, Swanberg very wisely opts to put the actual ins and outs of the workplace in the background of the story. The brewery – more to the point: the beer – is simply the catalyst for the narrative that collapses in around Luke and Kate when their perpetual friendly, vaguely-sexual-but-mostly-harmless flirtation is offered the briefest of opportunities to turn into something else.
For the mot part, the plot carries all the trappings of any other would-be lovers storyline. Although Luke and Kate share something special at work, they each have significant others at home. Luke's circling the idea of marriage to his longtime girlfriend Jill (Anna Kendrick), but we get the sense that he's stalling. Meanwhile, Kate's in a more or less steady relationship with the older, more stable record producer Chris (Ron Livingston). But because the workings of the film's plot are centered on beer and alcohol and all the social aspects that come from them – i.e., mid-day beers in the employee break room, after work beers at the bar down the street, or even, a weekend full of beer, during an odd and portentous double-date at Chris' cabin – the suggestion is that something will happen, eventually; and when it does, it will be because beer made it all possible.
So, for all intents and purposes, Swanberg sets his characters and their circumstances up in such a way that the audience is as convinced Luke and Kate are as perfect for one another as perhaps Luke is. And that's the odd thing about 'Drinking Buddies': Even though it's set up to feel like something of an ensemble – or even to have Johnson and Wilde split the protagonist duties – more and more of the story seems to be filtered through Luke as the film progresses. This begins soon after Kate experiences a sudden change in her personal life, which is then followed by Luke making a series of discoveries about his would-be paramour that begins to alter his perception of her. Whether this was always the intention of Swanberg, or this perspective manifested out of the improvisational aspect of the film is not entirely certain.
But gradually telling the story more and more from Luke's viewpoint has advantages aside from the opportunity to see Johnson utilize a more grounded personality than he's asked to portray on the broad comedy of 'New Girl.' For one, there's the sense that the film just naturally moves toward a smaller, more individual scope as it progresses, and the sudden comprehension or revelation for Johnson's character actually gives the story some of the weight it desperately needs. It also focuses the narrative so that, when it broadens again, there's a sense that something significant actually transpired. That's an interesting thing for a movie to do, especially when it starts out feeling like an ensemble with the main selling point being the terrific chemistry between Johnson and Wilde. Rather than feel it has to tell all the stories at the same time, or that is must fit them all into the confines of a single runtime, 'Drinking Buddies' narrows its focus to the film's advantage, rather than its detriment.
This is a breezy little film that, like its characters, is clearly interested in the meaning behind words left unsaid, avenues left unexplored, and moments left hanging. Again, perhaps this is an extension of its spontaneous foundation, but the central conceit of 'Drinking Buddies' certainly benefits from having a loose, unprepared feel that likely found its structure in the editing room. This time, rather than have two star-crossed lovers gradually work a romantic union, there is a feeling of ambiguity in the text (or lack thereof) that is itself very reminiscent of who these people are: They are unfixed, just playing things by ear, and in the most cases eager to employ the improvisational rule of always saying "Yes and!"
What 'Drinking Buddies' lacks in a sense of formality, it gains in a welcome lightness that gives the film its distinct watchability. While that effervescence may leave some wishing for more, the subtle notes of melancholy and humor create an attractive bouquet of sentiment that perhaps has more depth than the film first lets on. Either way, as a workplace dramedy, romantic comedy, or piece of improvisational storytelling, the movie lives and breathes on the terrific performances of its cast, who manage to convey with some tangible sincerity, how sometimes a workplace crush is just a fantasy that's best when it stays bottled up.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Drinking Buddies' comes from Magnolia Home Entertainment as a single 50GB Blu-ray disc in the standard keepcase. The disc itself is surprisingly loaded with some interesting (some not-so-interesting) special features, and will auto play a selection of previews before the top menu. All of these can be skipped, however.
Although it would easily be classified as an indie, 'Drinking Buddies' has that distinct look of many films in this age of digital filmmaking. Thankfully, director Joe Swanberg and his cinematographer Ben Richardson have managed to deliver an image that has the feel and aesthetic sensibilities of an indie feature, while still having terrific detail, color, and high contrast.
For the most part, fine detail is on display during close-ups, though there are plenty of occasions where detail is present in long shots as well. These are typically found when the camera is trying to fit a great amount of space into a single shot, such as inside the warehouse-like structure of the brewery where a multitude of people and objects are in frame. Background remains detailed for the most part, while objects or characters closer to the lens are given a nice amount of clarity and fine detail. Some scenes can look a little soft, but for the most part the image looks quite nice.
Contrast and color are also quite good in the film, as there are plenty of scenes that take place in a multitude of indoor and outdoor spaces, as well as day or night. There is a perceptible and appreciated difference between, say, a fire-lit beach at night and the inside of a bar, or an apartment and the office of a brewery in mid-day. Here, the picture manages to generate a distinct feel for each location while delivering strong black levels to properly convey shadow, and whites that look bright, without washing the entire image out. Similarly, as the color palette is generally the same throughout, the image manages to display certain clothes or light sources (like neon) with bright, vivid colors that never overwhelm or appear oversaturated.
Overall, 'Drinking Buddies' comes with a good-looking picture that plays to the strengths of the movie and the story it is tasked with telling.
The DTS HD Master Audio 5.1 track does a great job of delivering most every aspect of what is a relatively simple mix. For the most part, 'Drinking Buddies' is all about the dialogue, and thankfully, that is where the mix truly shines. Every character is easily heard, as his or her voice, tone, and inflection is given tremendous consideration, so that every last bit of improvised dialogue sounds distinct and clear.
For the most part, though, this isn't a particularly complex soundtrack. There are some decent sounding atmospheric elements that help to convey location – like the sounds of a busy brewery, a tasting, or even the sounds of a busy bar – and for the most part, the mix manages to generate an interesting and immersive sound that gives the film's sound some added depth. The mix generally uses the rear channels for background noise and ambient music that's being listened to or played for the characters. The front right and left channels also jump in to help, which gives the mix a nice sense of directionality that further enhances the sound here.
Overall, 'Drinking Buddies' makes good use of its DTS-HD Master Audio, delivering crisp sounding movie that has some surprising bits of depth.
'Drinking Buddies' is the kind of buzzy little indie film that's popular around festival time (it was an official selection at SXSW 2013), but then falls off the radar when it makes a quieter entrance into theaters or on home video. But this quiet little film definitely deserves to be seen; it excels at telling a simple, common story in a straightforward manner that still manages to entertain. While the film itself may be a little one-note, the performances are not. Johnson does a terrific job playing another man-child, but this one comes off feeling a little more grounded and unsure in a familiar and intriguing way. The surprise, however, comes from Wilde, who delivers an unexpectedly nuanced and layered performance that hasn't really been seen in her other roles. With great picture and sound, and a load of interesting extras, 'Drinking Buddies' is recommended.