Unless you are watching an experimental film that is avoiding traditional narrative, all films have a storyline. We drop in on the lives of a few people, get to know their problems, see them fail or succeed to find a resolution, and leave with hopefully a bit more wisdom than we arrived with.
I see myself in a conversation with someone who may share my dislike of Drinking Buddies and call the film plotless. They aren't far off, but we come in just as one woman is having a good go at life, watch as problems arise from actions both within and without her direct input, and view the conclusion with the knowledge gained from watching these people. Beginning. Middle. End. There's a plot.
The more important distinction is whether Drinking Buddies finds a way to make its low-key problems interesting in either a visual way or through its dialogue. Yes, it does manage to milk some success out of the previously hidden charms of Olivia Wilde and the never-disappointing Anna Kendrick. But throughout its run-time Drinking Buddies does not make its protagonists compelling, or even inspire an interest to keep watching that goes beyond my philosophy of not reviewing a film I haven't finished. I did, and charm alone does not make a good experience out of a drunken conversation that is better left forgotten a day later.
All of the characters in Drinking Buddies have their interactions with each other around alcohol. Kate (Wilde) is the charming public face of a brewery in Chicago and works with the equally fun Luke (Jake Johnson). Their significant others, Jill (Kendrick) and Chris (Ron Livingston), are as reserved as the brewery partners are vibrant. All of them are at that tentative age where it seems like the time to make long-lasting decisions and settle down, or whether it's time to keep trucking on for a better tomorrow. Every scene revolves around if each person is really being honest with themselves, or if that's just the booze talking.
That's not a bad subject for a film, and one that doesn't need as strong and sturdy a hand behind the visuals. Drinking Buddies is writer / director Joe Swanberg's first major feature film but is actually the fifteenth director credit that he has received since 2005. That's a prodigious output, but this being his fourteenth film I find that he has only mastered the slightly shaky documentary cam and the medium shot. This is a standard way to film people talking and considering that the film is essentially one feature-length conversation that's not a bad way to go. In fact, Woody Allen has made a nice career by keeping almost as constant a pace as Swanberg, and isn't exactly known for his visual panache.
But what Allen has, and Swanberg is completely lacking fifteen films in, is a perspective that lends interest. The conversation, which flows from Jill And Chris, to Chris and Luke, to a trio of the four, to all four, is so precisely interested in the mundane details of our day-to-day existence that it never gains traction. Long passages about food, drinking, music, past relationships, and other details flit onscreen but never collide with one another. Even in the rare moments where conflict seems to break out, it's kept off-screen, like when Chris makes a decision that we see coming the moment he gives Kate a book on narcissism without smiling. The events are the filmed recreation of the dullest night of drinking and light conflict from college without anything that can be learned.
That's life, yes, but is that interesting? Drinking Buddies does not falter in its approach and I cannot doubt Swanberg's dedication to recreating this precise moments in their lives. His screenplay is similarly light, allowing for jokes without punch lines and the random murmuring of slurred bar conversation between quiet moments on the beach. Yet there's no tension in watching people who seem set up to do exactly what's expected from their opening interactions.
Every wavering medium shot, every strained attempt to add tension via a close-up (a Bergman-esque technique that Woody also employed), and meandering sentence, lies another minute that ticks by without anything resembling progress. This might be better with a joke that stuck, a conflict that resulted in a trenchant insight, or anything that makes even our worst nights worth remembering. Even the possibility of commentary on alcoholism, possible given the extensive consumption on the film, is discarded for another quiet scene of casual conversation. Drinking Buddies succeeds at its chosen level that life just happens sometimes, bad things may be good, and a lesson is not always learned.
I don't know who that would appeal to as a viewing experience. Sometimes there's such a clamor for realism in film that in the attempt at conveying "reality" the narrative fails in realizing that not all personal stories are worth telling. After all, if this foursome doesn't learn anything, why should we bother?
Screenplay written and directed by Joe Swanberg.
Starring Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick, and Ron Livingston.