Whenever I catch part of some shitty romantic comedy on TV, I wish the producers had hired an up-and-coming indie director instead of some Hollywood hack. Why not a February’s worth of big-studio amusements directed by Alex Ross Perry and Lawrence Michael Levine? Joe Swanberg’s latest gives you a taste of what that might look like; it’s the mainstreamiest movie he or any of his contemporaries has made. After a particularly prolific period—15 features in eight years and more already in the can, plus several shorts—of quickly made, improvisatorily acted, roughly shot films about love, technology, being young, growing up, and/or making art comes this very professional-looking movie about adult relationships: it’s carefully framed (by Beasts of the Southern Wild cinematographer Ben Richardson) and pop-soundtracked, starring actors you recognize from movies that aren’t other Joe Swanberg movies.
Still, it’s not like the guy’s gone Hollywood. Drinking Buddies retains a few of the director’s motifs, like some shakily shot scenes, and still showcases his greatest strength: charming, defective, sympathetic characters created by actors who’ve conspicuously developed intimate rapports. (Should I even call this a comedy? It’s more charming than funny, not much more chuckle-provoking than most of the people you know.) The main two are employees of a Chicago craft brewery and clearly meant for each other, though they spend much of the movie with other people: Olivia Wilde with Peter Livingston, Jake Johnson with Anna Kendrick. They drink too much beer—Wilde usually wears sunglasses at work, presumably because she’s hungover—and grow a little too close at the office, on a weekend vacation, and then during the hours after work.
It’s a little too neat sometimes—Wilde works at a brewery, her wrong-for-her boyfriend is introduced drinking wine—but that just feels like part of the genre, a genre that Swanberg ultimately subverts; it’s a bit of misdirection to lead us to a sweet, unexpected and poignantly naturalistic finale that suggests not that we shouldn’t settle in life but that romantic couplings are complex and require real work—not just a few laughs with coworkers when you’ve had too much to drink. You start to see maybe why Hollywood doesn’t come calling on Joe Swanberg: is there any thinking less romcom-y than that?
Opens August 23 at Nitehawk