Despite its present-day setting, Joe Swanberg’s Drinking Buddies has a sense of containment that recalls the studio films of the ancient past, which were free from paying homage to other pop culture and existed in their own censored simulacrum of life. It’s a good summer movie because it’s relaxing. You can haul in a six-pack, unfold a lawn chair, and giggle along without it making any sort of demands on you. Like the drinking buddies on Cheers, or any old sitcom that Americans once put their feet up for after a long day at work, it’s companionable.
The plot consists of a love quadrilateral, with Olivia Wilde as its sharpest edge. She’s the sole chick in a sausage fest of a brewery; she’s dating a reserved record producer played by Ron Livingston, but has a workplace flirt-friend in Jake Johnson, who’s spoken for by adorkable Anna Kendrick. Drinking Buddies is literally an outline; Swanberg let the actors fill it in with improv, so, as in another mumblecore-gone-mainstream, Cyrus, the lines are often fun in the way of off-the-cuff chatter, but have little of the zing that tighter writing has spoiled us with. The payoffs are on the level of “That’s what she said!” Like the slicker Our Idiot Brother, Buddies has the over-parsed redundancy of gentrified cityspeak down pat—but it comes too naturally, too guilelessly, to be called satire. This is a hipster fantasy that doesn’t know it’s a fantasy because bobo glamour has gotten so low-key you wouldn’t know it’s glamour. Despite the movie having no backstory on offer, it’s pretty clear that Wilde—and possibly Johnson, too—is working class by choice. They work for a small craft brewery in Chicago; they have no reason not to get drunk every night because there’s nothing at stake except hurt feelings. And even those are just booboos.
Though it doesn’t amount to much more than a domestic Vicky Cristina Barcelona, on tap at your local dive, Swanberg has a smooth sense of rhythm and pace, an ear for the awkward, and a knack for channeling bonhomie from cast to audience. His direction is less casual than the dialogue, even though it’s apparent that the marquee names were happy to unwind from the stress of bigger budgets. In some ways, the stars detract: a girl doesn’t have to be as ravishing as Wilde to get the attention her character gets from the blue-collar schlubs. It might have been a more interesting take if Kendrick had been in the role of Kate, the party girl who wears sunglasses indoors, and played against type. It would have come out differently, but the results might have been more fresh. Played by Wilde, she’s like the baby sister of Charlize Theron’s bitch par excellence in Young Adult; Kate’s good looks have protected her from having to learn how to be responsible. This revelation doesn’t have much under it—she’s a brat, and the film implies she’ll just grow out of it—but it dawns on the audience at just the right rate.