Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures
Drinking Buddies is an indie flick billed as a romantic comedy over the backdrop of a lot of a craft beer brewing. But this is not your typical Hollywood comedy featuring cookie cutter characters and clichéd plot lines. It's actually not much of a comedy at all, but more of an actors' movie that turns into a people study. The comedy is natural human interaction comedy not of the slapstick or ridiculous gag nature that your typical Kate Hudson movie is full of.
The main stars of Drinking Buddies are Kate and Luke, who both work at the real-life Revolution Brewing in Chicago. Kate and Luke are great friends with a natural chemistry between them; they love to drink and goof around together. Each has a more professional and thoughtful significant other, who both play important supporting roles.
The film opens with a brewery montage set to "Lady Luck" by Richard Swift, a musical choice that reminds me of a 1970's relationship drama more than a modern day romantic comedy and, like some of those movies, it avoids Hollywood stereotypes. The title track scene is set to still shots of Luke emptying a bag of grain into a mill and shots of malts and grains going through the auger into the mash. Basically the beginnings of the movie are the beginnings of a beer. From the opening scenes I was impressed with Drinking Buddies' attention to accuracy in terms of the craft beer industry. It seems to get everything right from a craft beer fan or brewer's perspective, right down to the lifestyle. For instance, at the end of the first scene, Kate bicycles instead of drives home from an after work drinking session at the bar, complete with a big messenger-style bike bag. She studiously refuses to drive for the whole movie, perhaps because she drinks so much?
This brings me to Olivia Wilde, who plays Kate, an operations manager/sales person at the brewery. Let's dwell on her for a second. The first time I took note of her as an actress was her role as a hybrid race of computer program came to life in the Tron sequel. In that flick she was perfectly cast as an android-like character grappling with humanity, a la Terminator or The Matrix. Olivia's crazy high and pronounced cheekbones, slick hair and eyebrows, and sharp eyes give her the look of a computer-generated hot supermodel who, while beautiful, could not possibly exist in real life. In fact, I am pretty sure I saw a life-like mannequin peering at me through the window of a lingerie shop. In other words, Olivia Wilde is like some sexy humanoid robot from the future sent to occupy men's new beer geek fantasies. Except in this flick, she actually shows some acting chops and tones down the supermodel good looks to become merely very attractive.
Drinking Buddies, while placed around a brewery and drinking culture, is first and foremost about the characters and their relationships. The first sign of trouble in Kate's and Chris's relationship comes when Kate returns from the bar to a patiently waiting Chris, played by Ron Livingston in a mostly thankless role, who has prepared dinner. Kate would rather pick off a bite from Chris plate than sit down for a meal with him and instead helps herself to another beer from the fridge as she exclaims under her breath, "I love beer!" while popping open a bottle. She notes that Chris has not had any of the beer she has brought home from work. I like how the director/writer never quite spells out why these characters relationships aren't working, but if you notice the small things, like the fact that Chris never drinks a beer and Kate is always reaching for one, it becomes clear.
The other main character, Luke, is a brewer at Revolution Brewing who enjoys beer and Kate and playing blackjack and not much else. Luke is played by Jake Johnson, a regular on the television show New Girl, although he is almost unrecognizable with a full bushy beard. That's another miniscule but important detail they get right; if this was a Hollywood flick he would be a well-groomed hunk. Instead he always wears a cap and ragged clows with an authentic beard. Luke seems to have a better relationship with his girlfriend, Jill, played by the loveable girl next door actress Anna Kendrick, who was so good in End of Watch. A genuinely good guy, Luke is a bit goofy, a heavy drinker, and yet is concerned and caring when he needs to be. Jake Johnson does a great job making his character feel like a real person.
The first signs of drama unfolding and the first flaw in the film come in the abrupt and unexplained scene jump to both of the couples going away to Chris's secluded cabin on the beach. Even in a romantic comedy, nothing good can come from a cabin scene for characters in a film. This whole chapter is too cliched for this movie and comes with no set-up of how the characters got there; it's the biggest flaw in a very simple plot. For the most part, writer/director Joe Swanberg dutifully obeys one of the first rules of filmmaking — "Show, don't tell." For instance, when Kate and Luke arise in the morning looking drowsy and reaching for coffee, their significant others are already coming back from a jog on the beach. Kate and Luke steadfastly avoid any sort of voluntary "work" after work other than drinking. Later, when Chris asks Luke and Kate whether they would like to take a hike in the woods, they both pass and he ends up talking relationships and philosophy with Chris's girlfriend Jill in the woods instead. Meanwhile, Luke and Kate couldn't care less what their partners were up to, they have a blast getting drunk and playing games all night. To no one's surprise, Chris and Jill end up making out by the end of their walk. From here I expected Drinking Buddies to delve into more well-tread ground,ie Luke and Kate fall for each other and their significant others for each other. But Drinking Buddies narrowly avoids this cliche. Immediately after returning from their trip, Chris breaks up with Kate freeing her up to sleep with another random brewer at Revolution. This clearly upsets Luke, but it's not clear whether it's out of jealousy or protectiveness for Kate, who seem to have a brother/sister relationship.
Throughout the film there are cool touches that beer geeks will appreciate, like all the real brewery merchandise Luke wears, from an Old Style hat to an Allagash T-shirt and Abita hoodie. Kate sports a Half Acre Beer Company tee, and there's even a verbal mention of Three Floyds Brewing. I also enjoyed how Kate and Luke are drinking beers in virtually every scene — the movie virtually suggests they are functioning alcoholics, especially in one scene where Kate comes into work and immediately pours herself a beer. I enjoyed small details, too, like the fact that they are not drinking just light lagers. In some scenes you can tell they are drinking anything from pale ales to stouts.
Later Luke finds himself with his girlfriend out of town and Kate needs help moving. Entering her apartment, she has not even packed or cleaned up since her birthday party; bottles are strewn about and the leftovers of a cake are sitting out. Now, at this point, if I was Luke I would be fuming with anger, but instead he helps her clean up and even stays the night to help the next day. You keep expecting something to happen here between them, but it never quite does in the way you expect. The filmmakers often seem to subtly suggest that Kate and Luke are like immature adults leading an irresponsible lifestyle, but never really condemns them for it. Clearly they are not built for the world of business suits and adult problems; instead, their lives revolve around drinking beer with friends. By the end of the film, I think everyone has embraced this notion and it may leave some wishing they had their lives, while others may be annoyed and jealous with the characters who are never forced to grow up.
Drinking Buddies has a natural sense of realism and almost documentary-like presentation of real life people and relationships. The performances in this flick are all pretty great, and I thought a lot of dialog must have been improvised. According to IMBD, it's all improvised, as the actors only had some idea of plot and scene order. Drinking Buddies is not hilarious, but it is humorous. Some of the more amusing scenes are in the trailer and revolve around Olivia Wilde's reactions to different things like the funny noises she makes after doing a shot of booze. Drinking Buddies feels sort of like an off-Broadway play and is not likely to inspire any strong feelings from Hollywood audiences, but you may identify with these characters. I certainly did.
Running Time: 95 minutes | Rating: R
Founder of The New School and most frequent contributor Ezra Johnson-Greenough has worked in the craft beer industry for the last 5 years, doing everything from illustrating beer labels to brewing beer. He has also had a hand in creating events like the Portland Fruit Beer Festival, Portland Beer Week, and the Brewing up Cocktails series.