If “When Harry Met Sally” (1989) is Nora Ephron’s take on Woody Allen, then “Drinking Buddies” is Joe Swanberg’s take on Nora Ephron. If you have a working knowledge of the mumblecore master’s oeuvre then that may strike you as an odd comparison. Their filmmaking philosophies couldn’t be more different. But Swanberg, the improv-loving, organic scene gardener, owes a lot to the late romance maven–in particular, her smart navigation of the land-mine-filled netherworld of platonic friendship between straight people of the opposite gender.
“Drinking Buddies,” is the prolific director’s thirteenth feature in half as many years, doubling the dizzying workmanlike pace of rom-com patriarch Woody Allen’s. The oft-parodied mumblecore movement, like the beatniks and hippies and punks and countless others before, is a reaction to a slagging homogenous mainstream. As tentpole releases ratcheted up the machine gun-paced editing and giant robot arms race, indies countered with ever-longer takes and a picture of humanity more intimate and relational. Yet, mumblecore is an extremophile, even in the sometimes defiantly inaccessible realm of microbudget indie film (imagine the theoretical train-wreck-in-slow-motion of screening Shane Caruth’s “Primer” for a wide audience). And Joe Swansberg may well be the den leader.
But “Drinking Buddies” is different. Whereas half of Swansberg’s films are so under the radar they don’t even have Wikipedia pages, “Drinking Buddies” boasts a couple of genuine movie stars and is easily the most aesthetically conscious of anything he’s ever done. Perhaps coincidentally, it’s also the best film he’s ever made.
“Drinking Buddies” has all the makings of a typical Sundance eye-roller. Privileged, attractive, young white people–working at a craft brewery, no less–deal with super hard first-world problems like what if Olivia Wilde is totally into you, but her boyfriend Ron Livingston has an awesome pad, and you’re practically engaged to Anna Kendrick? Life is so hard. This time around, however, Swanberg overcomes the pretense and cuteness of the premise and delivers something remarkably salient. It helps that he’s got some real talent to work with.
Jake Johnson and Olivia Wilde have so much chemistry you can practically feel Wilde’s real life beau Jason Sudeikis, who has a bit part in the film, working up a healthy sweat off camera. Ron Livingston plays a slightly stuffy, but affable younger-middle-age like only he can. And Anna Kendrick possesses both the vague, good-natured innocence and the sophistication to make her a believable partner to either Johnson’s fun-loving, blue-collar hipster or Livingston’s severely grownup culture connoisseur.
Most of all, “Drinking Buddies” represents a movement fully formed. Unlike Dogme 95, the avant-garde movement concocted by Danish auteurs Thomas Vinterberg and Lars Von Trier, mumblecore isn’t burdened by rules. There is no Mumblecore Manifesto. And while Dogme 95 has largely fallen by the wayside, mumblecore, steered by the likes of Lynn Shelton, the Duplass brothers and Swanberg, is becoming the standard in indie film.
Whether that’s a good thing is yet to be seen, but Swanberg’s pivot toward the mainstream is an encouraging sign. With no end in sight to the glut of Autobots and Decepticons, board game adaptations, and bloated Marvel costume parties passed off as narrative storytelling, Tinseltown could use a little more mumble in its movies.