As the sole woman working at a Chicago brewery with a tribe of bearded, vaguely hipster guys in Joe Swanberg’s Drinking Buddies, Olivia Wilde’s Kate seems to be that unicorn creature that every won’t-grow-up dude can’t believe exists outside the pages of Maxim. Resolutely non-girly in dress and attitude, she slams down beers with the guys and chows french fries at lunch. Come night-time, all she wants to do is play pool, joke around, and do yet more drinking. At no point does she look happier than when holding a full pint of beer and a mammoth tub of pretzels; this being a movie, she still looks phenomenal in a bikini. She’s also not-so-secretly in love with her work friend Luke (Jake Johnson, volcanic in his enthusiasm), even though both of them are seeing other people — the same fly-by-night nature that makes her a blast at work will also likely torpedo every relationship around her.
As the brewery’s publicist, Kate has to pretend at being a grownup, but can’t make it work. She asks Luke, “Can I make beer instead while you make phone calls?” Her decent but awkward boyfriend Chris (Ron Livingston) is marked as a more uptight type right from the get-go: he drinks wine instead of beer, and asks her to use coasters, for god’s sake. It’s patently clear that their relationship is doomed, Chris being something of an adult and Kate still wanting to running off with the Lost Boys. Closer to Chris in temperament is Jill (Anna Kendrick), Luke’s somewhat fiance, who loves his life-of-the-party shtick but doesn’t necessarily always play along. Just as Kate is waiting in the wings to make some very bad decisions with Luke, the more persnickety Jill and Chris can’t help but see a kindred spirit in the other. During a couple’s weekend at a lakeside cabin, Jill and Chris go off on a hike and picnic (having packed all necessities like the good planners they are), while Luke and Kate play poker and drink. Luke’s affection for Kate could be more of a big-brotherly phenomenon, while her crush is bright as neon.
A first-rate romantic comedy that applies mumblecore fly-on-the-wall plotlessness to an urbane French quadrangle of frustrated friendships and stealth affairs, Drinking Buddies comes at things obliquely. Viewers are dumped into the story with little preamble and zero exposition. This doesn’t end up being an issue, as Swanberg has such an organic sense for teasing romantic interplay that each of the main characters’ feelings reads clear as day even when they aren’t saying a word. It’s an intensely verbose and rambling film, with Wilde and Johnson — who make one of the most winning on-screen duos in recent memory — wringing an impressive amount of comedy out of simply goofing around with each other and testing the borders of that grey zone between love and friendship.
But their play eventually heads into darker territory, with Luke and Kate testing the waters of how far they can go before something damaging happens. There aren’t many blowout scenes or heartfelt declarations, Swanberg’s naturalism won’t allow for such cheats. The few moments when playtime threatens to come to an end, few of these people seem capable of knowing what to say or do. The grownups like Jill are having such a good time watching kids like Luke and Kate enjoy themselves, they don’t want to ruin things by having a serious conversation. With such an infectious sense of fun on display, who could blame them? For all the broken hearts, this is a sublimely joyful film.