In a brief Q & A session at the SXSW world premiere with the cast of Drinking Buddies, Joe Swanberg’s romantic drama set in a Chicago beer brewery, star Olivia Wilde said that her role, as the sort of events manager for the brewery who gets entangled in many a flirtatious tete-a-tetes with Jake Johnson’s droll character, was the best experience she’s ever had on a film. I believe her: this film may feature the actress in her meatiest role yet; she’s in nearly every scene and she’s the catalyst to much of the film’s (thin) plot.
But Wilde, with those transfixing eyes and spindly frame, never quite becomes the charming, irresistible tomboy the movie makes her out to be — there’s an inexactness, an uncompromised sense of dullness to her performance that would seem like the perfect fit for this type of shaggy indie rom-com-cum-drama, but it all lands too squarely. Is it fair to describe an actor as not cool enough for a role? Drinking Buddies raises the question.
At this brewery, Wilde’s character Kate, when she isn’t downing beer after beer in waistline-defying numbers (one running motif is that every conversation seems to be accompanied by beer), she’s dragging her heels and ambivalently carrying out her work duties.
She’s cool with the guys who make the booze (especially Luke, whom Johnson plays with his usual louche slacker amiability) and has an ongoing, if obviously rickety, relationship with Chris (Ron Livingston), a record label honcho who gives her John Updike books as presents.
After a weekend double date trip to Chris’ lake house with Luke and his serious girlfriend Jill (Anna Kendrick), the idea that the couples would be better off swapped rises to the surface and the film's second half is largely spent dancing around what any of them are going to do about it.
Better films have been made from thinner plots, but Swanberg leaving his actors mostly to their own devices (the film is highly improvised) only renders its missing alchemy all the more apparent. Wilde and Johnson, as the rough around the edges, kind of messy and not quite together late bloomers, have sparks, but no electricity.
Drinking Buddies sketches out some relevant psychosexual workplace drama: Where do the lines blur between easy, loving workplace relationships and easy, loving romantic and sexual relationships? It’s clear the Kate and Luke are better suited for each other, getting along famously at work, but whether that translates cohesively outside is something Swanberg seems wholly indifferent about.
He stages the kind of half-a-beat-early resolution you’d expect from this kind of independent film, a stroke more indulgent than it is artistic. It’s all built from a scraggly, open-aired pacing that oscillates between playful and just plain infuriating — funny, awkward pauses are punctuated by the dead space left by an unseasoned cast of improvisers.
It all doesn’t come together because it’s all way too loose. When improv works, it’s because there’s a very firm handle on the bursts of wild creative energy — a controlled chaos. And great work can emerge when a director is willing to take a few steps back and relinquish some control. Here, Swanberg is so far back and hands off his movie dissolves right in front of us. Drinking Buddies goes down smooth but without much flavor.