Eric Hynes recently wrote an article in the New York Times about the new films by Andrew Bujalski and Joe Swanberg, suggesting that mumbecore has finally grown up. Given the fact that mumblecore reflected a youth culture and the problems of a generation of characters in their twenties, the passage of time would, of course, inevitably have that effect. Bujalski is now thirty-six, while Swanberg is thirty-one. Both filmmakers are married with young kids and have to make a living, which is hard to do making micro-budget indie features. Yet the new films by Bujalski and Swanberg couldn’t be more different. Bujalski’s Computer Chess (2013), a period piece set in the early days of computing (circa 1980), represents an entirely new direction for him, whereas Swanberg’s Drinking Buddies (2013) is a larger-budget romantic comedy that still has links to the style and substance of his earlier works.
I have seen quite a few of Joe Swanberg’s films over the years (roughly ten features by my count), even if I haven’t written about his work at any length until now. Like James Benning, Swanberg has been amazingly prolific in the digital format. Frankly, it’s hard to keep up with someone who has used sheer quantity as a means to survive as a filmmaker. This is in contrast to Bujalski, who has made only three other features since Funny Ha Ha (2002), the film that is credited with starting the mumblecore phenomenon. Yet, when all is said and done, Swanberg has made a number of equally strong films. I happened to take another look at Hannah Takes the Stairs (2007) the other day for a book chapter I’m writing, and the film certainly holds up upon multiple viewings. In fact, it only seems to get better and better each time.
Swanberg’s All the Light in the Sky (2013) screened at the Wisconsin Film Festival back in April. I considered it one of the highlights of the festival, which had a very strong indie lineup. Starring Jane Adams, the film has been largely overshadowed by Drinking Buddies, which is being distributed by Magnolia Pictures. Eric Kohn in Indiewire suggests that most of Swanberg’s films prior to Drinking Buddies are merely sketches, but I disagree. I find All the Light in the Sky to be a mature and sensitive look at the problems of being a middle-aged female actor, who has made great personal sacrifices to have a career. The main character, Marie (Adams), lives in a spectacularly nice house overlooking the ocean, but now finds herself without a partner and suddenly being passed over for major acting roles.
Based on a single page of notes (according to the filmmaker), Swanberg builds Drinking Buddies around a specific location, a craft brewery in Chicago, which reflects his current personal obsession with beer. The film centers on two couples. Kate (Olivia Wilde) is the events planner at the brewery, or, as the boss puts it, its “face and voice.” In the close-knit operation, Kate is very much at its center, as she organizes various public functions, much to the admiration of the guys who work there. Kate appears to have a special bond with the bearded Luke (Jake Johnson), who, with his boisterous personality, has an equally large presence among the workers. At the bar after work, we learn that Luke has a partner, Jill (Anna Kendrick), who doesn’t seem at all his type. Although he’s up to partying some more, she prefers to go home, much to the annoyance of the others, especially Kate, who begins playing pool.
Luke and Kate have a very close and flirtatious relationship, so much so that we’re equally puzzled when she later shows up at her boyfriend’s house. Compared to Kate, Chris (Ron Livingston) is not at all the type of guy we expect someone like her to date. He’s soft-spoken as opposed to loud, a good deal more of an intellectual than Kate, as well as considerably older. When she quizzes him about his day, Chris wonders whether someone playing a cello in a rock band was being ironic, and admits that he can no longer tell. As the two start to make love, he suddenly interrupts their foreplay to give her a present, which turns out to be a hardback book (later revealed to be John Updike’s novel, Rabbit, Run). Rather than staying the night, Kate rides her bike home, ostensibly because a package is being delivered to her house in the morning.
Chris tags along with Kate to the big brewery event she’s organized, which gives her co-workers their first glimpse of her boyfriend. Seeing the two of them in the midst of her work milieu, the mismatch between Kate and Chris seems both surprising and obvious to everyone who works there. Jill is also with Luke as well. She turns out to be a special education teacher, very straight, and later jokes about being a “bourgeois pig” when she carries a set of plates and glasses in her backpack on a hiking trip. What is she doing with a guy like Luke, who exults in continually playing the role of the house blackjack player, a job he previously held on a riverboat casino?
When the two couples decide to visit Chris’s cabin, presumably on Lake Michigan, they end up spending more time with each other’s partners. Chris wants to go hiking, but only Jill expresses any interest in accompanying him. The film cuts back and forth between Chris and Jill walking through the woods and stopping to picnic, and Kate and Luke back at the cabin. Later that night, after a great deal of drinking, when Luke and Kate find themselves the only ones still up, he proposes building a bonfire on the sandy beach. Kate accepts the challenge and later provocatively strips off her clothes and goes skinny-dipping in the lake.
The events of the weekend getaway, however, take their toll when Chris breaks up with Kate upon their return. Kate announces the news the next morning: “The shackles are off, I’m free,” she exclaims loudly, which is clearly an open invitation to Luke, but he actually has a mixed reaction. Kate begins to behave wildly after work, especially when she has a fling with one of the brewers, a guy named Dave (Ti West), and rumors swirl around the brewery. Needless to say, Luke gets both annoyed and very jealous. Meanwhile, things between Luke and Jill also become strained. She’s pressuring him to get married, and he acts as if he’s much too busy to get involved in planning a wedding right now. As he puts it, “figuring it out is the boring part.” Things reach a head when Jill goes away for a week to Costa Rica, leaving Luke to his own devices.
During the first half of Drinking Buddies, I confess that I missed the usual group of Swanberg performers. Despite cameos by regulars Frank V. Ross and Ti West, it took me awhile to warm to this group of professional actors. Only gradually did I begin to understand that Jill’s desperation to get married had to do with her life stage. When Kate tries to get back with Chris, he tells her they’ve been together long enough (eight months) for him to know their relationship isn’t going to work. It’s time for him to move on. For Jill, who’s been with Luke far too long (since she was twenty-one, we learn), she’s painfully aware that time is running out for them.
Although Jill might seem more suited to Chris, and Kate to Luke (especially in terms of social class), Drinking Buddies, in its observational style, suggests that there’s some truth to the old adage that opposites attract. Luke is much too comfortable in front of the bonfire to plunge into the ocean with Kate despite her seductive invitation. When Luke shows up at Kate’s apartment to help her move, he is grossed out by the fact that her place is such a mess. When Luke cuts his hand badly while moving her couch, Kate is too freaked out by the sight of blood to be able to offer assistance, whereas Jill’s response comes naturally and is just the opposite. While Kate and Luke make great drinking buddies, would they make a viable couple? Relationships generally need a certain balance or stability to keep them from veering wildly out of control. Referring to Luke and Jill’s nice apartment, Kate jokes, “I want a Jill . . . Does she have a male clone?”
There is unmistakable attraction and affection between Kate and Luke. The two feel enormously comfortable around each other, even physically, as they lie intertwined on the couch together. On some level, they’re very close, but what Swanberg seems to be suggesting in Drinking Buddies is that best buddies don’t necessarily make the best mates. As a result, there’s a sad undercurrent that runs throughout the film, which explores issues of friendship and romance, and the difference between casual crushes and actual commitments. Kate and Luke’s relationship seems to involve a series of missed connections. As it turns out, they might actually make better drinking buddies than lovers.
Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson, in particular, give outstanding and believable performances as strong working-class characters. Kate (who has the piercing eyes of a Siamese cat) might act like one of the guys, but when she feels judged by Luke, she responds with the fierceness of a caged animal. As played by Wilde, Kate is very much her own person, and certainly no one to mess with, which makes her one of the strongest female characters in any of Swanberg’s films. Anna Kendrick, on the other hand, plays the part of Jill with such understated vulnerability that it’s easy to miss the subtlety of what she’s doing, performance-wise.
In Drinking Buddies, it’s interesting to watch these actors respond to Swanberg’s more improvisational approach to filmmaking. In an interview, he discusses the benefits of working with professional actors: “They have a whole rich life and thought process to draw from, and so then in the moments where they’re sort of put on the spot they have stuff to talk about . . . Olivia reads a lot, she’s engaged in politics in the world around her, she has opinions about things. That’s all you need for improvisation – to be a person who is able to express yourself. If you’re working with good actors then everybody’s doing that, and you end up with fascinating scenes.”
Drinking Buddies is playing on Amazon Instant as a two-day rental for $10 (as well as on iTunes). I ran across it quite by accident, but I was happy to have an opportunity to see the film before it is released theatrically in late August.