This past Friday, Drinking Buddies, Joe Swanberg’s new, critically acclaimed romantic comedy , opened in Philly at the Ritz at the Bourse. Initially, anyway, it’s about a pair of friends, Luke and Kate, who work at a brewery together and have obvious chemistry made complicated by their respective significant others, Jill and Chris, who happen to have their own thing going on. Now, I can already see your eyes roll at the idea of an indie romantic comedy claiming to be “complex,” and I completely understand that there are people who would sooner march into a piranha-infested cesspool than go see a romantic comedy. I pray for their souls, but I get it. But Drinking Buddies is touching, funny and deeply unsettling in a way that falls outside the typical rom-com agenda. Here, five reasons that even the crankiest, rom-com-hating movie-goer will still love Drinking Buddies.
1. No wingpeople
In Swanberg’s world, there are no permanent partners for happy hours, lunch, da club, the nail salon or the squash court. No desperate old sorority-sister sidekicks offering up “modern love” analyses (“men just don’t know what they want!”) or two-dimensional yoga classmates demanding “DTR” chatter with the leading character (“but what’s the deal?”). The main players in Drinking Buddies, refreshingly, each have their own problems to deal with, and instead of relying on unconvincing soundboards to narrate us through the drama, Swanberg lets each character (as we all have to in real life) go at it alone, their internal strife made clear only through (gasp!) good acting.
2. Limited banter
When Chris and Jill head into the woods for their totally innocent friend-hike, there’s nothing about their interaction that suggests they’ve been waiting their whole lives to finish each others’ sentences. Their dialogue is actually excruciating to watch, but that doesn’t stop the attraction from being palpable. According to most romantic comedies, romance typically means immediately effortless banter; in Drinking Buddies, chemistry doesn’t translate to perfect comedic timing, even for would-be lovers Kate and Luke, who we see fall into ruts with one another. The movie’s relationships (whether they’re supposed to be percolating or not) require interpersonal strain that mirrors real life, plus a whole lot of social lubricant. Which brings me to…
I felt a little hungover when the credits ran after this movie. There is nary a scene in the whole movie in which one of the main characters is not slurping a frothy craft beer, and while their dependency on the stuff comes into near-tragic high-def as the movie rolls forward, movies with tasty focal points (Sideways, Chocolat … Ratatouille?) immediately have more “fun” potential. If you don’t leave the theater satisfied with the movie, you’ll at least leave with the thought: “You know what sounds pretty good right now…” Plus, as one friend put it: “It’s a rom-com about beer! Everybody wins!”
4. A plot that actually moves
When the four friends (who have just met for the first time one scene earlier at a brewery event) suddenly march into a lakeside cabin for a getaway weekend, I was confused: So… they just all decided to go on vacation together? When did that happen? It’s a sudden plot move that happens in some variation a lot during the movie, but is infinitely better than the stock explanatory scene. You know what I mean. The couple is packing in the bedroom for an undisclosed trip, and one of them muses out loud: “It was so nice of George to invite us to his uncle’s Poconos cabin for the weekend with him and Sue!” The partner agrees. That kind of thing. This movie doesn’t have that.
5. Love stinks
Basically, if you’re one of those cinematic scrooges who thinks light, on-screen romance and its skin-deep complications (“But he’s dating that pretty cheerleader!”) are a farce, you’re set – there’s nothing idyllic about the relationships portrayed in this movie. In fact, if you tend to veer toward Revolutionary Road or We Don’t Live Here-style interpretations of marriage and commitment, you’ll be nodding your head in vindication during Drinking Buddies. The only “monogomish” relationship that lasts during the movie (between Luke and Jill) seems largely self-imposed, with marital pressure, plenty of awkward silences, and a tendency for the lovebirds to, if not sleep around per se, at least drunk-nap with other people.