Drinking Buddies (2013)

16 09 2013

Joe Swanberg is something of a divisive figure in cinema. My reactions to his films have fallen somewhere in the middle of this divide, but I guess I lean more towards the negative side than the positive one. I find the man about as fascinating as I find him frustrating. Certainly, there was a time when the harrowing “emotional truth” drama spoke with me, but I’ve found most of his films to be forcing the point. Drinking Buddies is a departure in many ways. Superficially, it finally gives Swanberg’s film a professional sheen, but just as noticeable is the specificity missing from his characters. He’s gone for something more broad. While both of these would seem to be improvements, they actually work as problems here, yet this is still probably the best movie he’s ever made.


Kate and Luke are coworkers at a brewery and the two maintain an innocent yet flirty relationship. This isn’t much of an issue even as both are attached, Luke to Jill and Kate, less convincingly, to Chris. Kate and Luke finally introduce their significant others to each other, and the quartet goes on a weekend camping trip. There, Jill kisses Chris when the two are finally alone, almost devoid of any sentiment. Kate and Luke continue to flirt, but she arrives for work the next day proudly broadcasting the news that she’s single. Jill, meanwhile, leaves for Costa Rica, opening a door for Kate and Luke to finally express the feelings they’ve playfully masked.


At the risk of reducing some of characters here, I would argue that Jill and Chris are mostly periphery. Make no mistake, their presence is important because it is their ties to Kate and Luke that provide another obstacle. Like Rohmer, who Swanberg is most close to (not Cassavetes), the tragedy here lies in the sort of societal strings that bind heterosexual relationships from happening and not happening. Kate and Luke would be and should be in love, but that’s never how these work out so instead they playfully work out around their feelings until the point that become unbearable. Their interactions are pleasant enough on the surface (until the end, which I’ll get to shortly) but there’s an aching uneasiness in how perfectly they gel together because they’ll probably never be together.


It feels hypocritical to criticize Swanberg for his film looking “too nice” since the aesthetics of his past work has so frequently been viewed as a negative. There’s a generic cleanliness in his frames here, though. He was slowly becoming a minimalist director (perhaps getting closer to Rohmer, again) but he’s hard to separate from say, Judd Apatow here. The artistry in the images is not really the point so I’d argue it isn’t a gigantic demerit but the best moments here are when the camera can rest and do without a worthless steadicam float. Again, I feel like an idiot criticizing Swanberg for the opposite thing I might criticize him for in another film. On the other hand, I think it’s worth noting that this film isn’t better than his earlier work just because it looks a lot nicer.


The other big common criticism he is able to get away from here is that his films are too specific, which I think again, might be a problem. Something like Uncle Kent is annoying to me because I feel the rhetoric of Ray Carney and “truth” flowing through every confession about sexual kinks. There’s nothing like that here and I’d argue that Swanberg perfectly captures the interactions of American 20somethings. In doing so, though, his brush is remarkably broad. It ultimately works, but Olivia Wilde reminds me of so many girls she could be any of them and Jake Johnson, equipped with a “cool beard” and everything, can be any dude I know. It’s not these characters feel a lot like people I know, it’s instead that they’re so lacking in anything specific that they probably could be anyone. Considering Swanberg ends the film in a way that is so willfully “open-ended” it might all be intentional. Maybe he knows the audience would want more, and then he’s gone for something a bit more opaque.


Swanberg grants us a little more into Kate and Luke towards the end. Luke agrees to help Kate move out of her old apartment and into her new one. Of course, the process is a total disaster because moving is almost always a total disaster. It’s a sequence that feels fresh, if only because it’s such a frustrating exercise that tends to be ignored. However, it’s a perfect point for Luke’s emotions to spill over into the open. Some have said that the scene feels forced, but I’d argue the film builds entirely into his frustration with Kate’s openness. It is part masculine bullshit (he wants to control Kate and prevent her from hanging out with anyone other than him) but the other part of it is he’s in love with Kate. The boundaries of his own relationship make this impossible to communicate in a way that fits into the realm of “reasonable” human interaction.


I hesitate to even call this film “good” but it’s definitely Swanberg’s biggest success. He has cleverly constructed a film that is ultimately about just two people who can’t be together, and he has formed it in the mold of a dumb romantic comedy. Chris and Jill aren’t important but their interaction is crucial. They share little to no feelings for each other but act physically on an impulse. They are the antithesis to Kate and Luke who are pretty much in love with each other but their feelings never manifested in the triumphant way we want relationships to play out. There’s problems here, but it does work as a reminder that the perfect romantic relationships that do happen are not only difficult, but are actually minor miracles. Kate and Luke’s non-relationships is, by the same logic, a minor tragedy.




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