Luke (Jake Johnson) and Kate (Olivia Wilde) are co-workers at a Chicago brewery, where they spend their days drinking and flirting. They're perfect for each other, except that they're both in relationships. Luke is in the midst of marriage talks with his girlfriend of six years Jill (Anna Kendrick), Kate is playing it cool with her music producer boyfriend Chris (Ron Livingstone). But an overnight beach trip for the foursome becomes a tipping point.
Olivia Wilde is, by most definitions, a Hollywood star, but the camera has never stayed with her, with her character’s needs, the way that it does in Joe Swanberg’s terrific new movie Drinking Buddies. Forget the billing, Wilde has had small parts in big budget movies: an object in desire in The Change-Up, an otherworldly femme fatale in Cowboys & Aliens and TRON: Legacy, and the ceremonial victim of the curse of trying to elicit romantic chemistry with Steve Carell in The Incredible Burt Wonderstone. There were flashes of something in this year’s Rush, but the minute Wilde’s Suzy Miller was passed from one great man (Chris Hemsworth’s James Hunt) to another (an unseen Richard Burton) Ron Howard’s movie forgot about her.
In Drinking Buddies Wilde plays Kate, the promotions manager at a busy Chicago microbrewery whose cavalier attitude to life isn’t meant to shield her from others but instead keeps her from defining herself. 'You guys seen The Hustler? You’re about to," she tells her male co-workers, pool cue and drink in hand, and Kate is determined and flirtatious, needful and removed. When she visits her boyfriend, record producer Chris (Ron Livingston) she shapes the late night meeting as being on his terms when it’s actually hers. It is a complex part, the fulcrum of Swanberg’s movie, and Wilde plays it with fascinating layers and eventually corrosive energy.
No-one gets a simple outline, no-one gets an easy out.
Swanberg is known for his micro-budget, improvised Mumblecore features, and like his 20something characters he’s stretching out into new shapes and choices. Shot by Ben Richardson (Beasts of the Southern Wild) the feature looks assured, with a visual aesthetic alert to the unspoken changes in personal dynamics. The most notable is between Kate and her co-worker and best friend, Luke (Jake Johnson), with whom she eats lunch, drinks late and edges toward infidelity in a way that requires neither to actually commit.
Flattened out, Drinking Buddies is a romantic comedy, but it refuses to abandon ambiguity and regret for a clear resolution. Kate and Luke are probably meant for each other, as could be Chris and Luke’s girlfriend, Jill (Anna Kendrick), but the schematic is secondary to the emotional turmoil that comes with desire. The film captures both the physicality of attraction and the uncertainty of a generation that is never entirely sure about commitment; a conversation between Luke and Jill about when they might be ready to have a conversation about marriage is one of several telling exchanges.
The characters take steps forward but leave a path to retreat, and Wilde makes this a painful strategy for Kate, whose expert social skills can’t quite obscure when she is deliberately deceiving herself. As with 2011’s Your Sister’s Sister, the film that did for perceptions of Lynn Shelton’s filmmaking what Drinking Buddies will do for Swanberg, the form is easily recognisable but the details are specific. No-one gets a simple outline, no-one gets an easy out. 'It will be fun," various characters reassure each other prior to trying something, and Swanberg knows that it will be right up until it suddenly isn’t.