The set-up for Drinking Buddies makes you sink in your seat with dread, promising one of those insufferable cookie-cutter rom-coms in which the story would be instantly resolved if people just told the truth. Kate (Olivia Wilde) and Luke (Jake Johnson) are co-workers at a brewery who share a natural, easy rapport. They share the same sense of humor. They have lunch together every day, and they often go out after work for happy hour to knock back brews and play pool.
Kate and Luke are obviously in love, but they’re not fully aware of it yet; the line between affectionate friendship and romance is often tricky to discern. Each of them is also in a relationship: Kate dates Chris (Ron Livingston), who often wonders how he managed to land such a beautiful girlfriend, while Luke lives with Jill (Anna Kendrick), a spirited young woman who is cautiously, carefully starting to press Luke about marriage.
When the two couples spend a weekend at a rural cabin in Michigan, doubts start creeping into everyone’s head. There is a stolen kiss that is never to be spoken about, and there is a long night of playing cards and building a bonfire on the beach that, while completely platonic, practically qualifies as cheating. Drinking Buddies was written and directed with subtlety and insight by Joe Swanberg, previously best known to mainstream audiences for playing the annoying guy with an arrow in his back in You’re Next. Like fellow mumblecore-grad filmmakers Lynn Shelton and Mark and Jay Duplass, Swanberg uses his actors’ improvisations to shape the film on the set, and he’s comfortable allowing situations to play out without resorting to plot contrivances.
There isn’t really much of a story in Drinking Buddies, and there are none of the usual cliches you’d normally find in this sort of movie (one of the most critical events in the film happens off-screen). But the movie does have four indelible, lived-in characters who are all relatable in varying ways, and it has a keen eye for the ways in which we sometimes resign ourselves to less-than-satisfying lives, because radical change can seem scary. All the actors are strong, but Wilde is particularly good as the impetuous Kate, who doesn’t realize how incredibly selfish she has become. The actress’ great beauty could have been a distraction, but her performance is so complex and alive that she blends right into this world of ordinary, working-class people with modest aspirations who are trying to find happiness but often go about it in all the wrong ways.