“Drinking Buddies” and the Attractiveness of Opposites

    Drinking Buddies is available on Netflix Instant Watch. (Photo credit: The New Yorker)

Drinking Buddies is available on Netflix Instant Watch. (Photo credit: The New Yorker)

The 2013 Joe Swanberg-directed mumblecore film “Drinking Buddies” came out last summer to less fanfare than deserved, but it has found new life this month after being made available on Netflix streaming. The film was shot and takes place in Chicago, and centers around two co-workers at Revolution Brewing in Logan Square.

While the jury is out among Chicagoans I’ve talked to about whether or not the Windy City locales and references worth watching for, I feel it’s the characters and dialogue that make this 90-minute movie worth your time.

In “Drinking Buddies,” there are two stories being told, but the viewer is only shown one. That hardly matters though, because the stories are the same. We see two people walk a fine line between being friends and more than friends, while off camera, it’s insinuated two other people are doing that same dance.

It comes down to this: In our relationships, we need someone who brings to the table the things we don’t have. In our friendships, we want people who bring more of the things we’ve already got and love. Knowing and understanding the difference is key.

Enter Luke and Kate, played by Jake Johnson and Olivia Wilde, respectively. The two work together at the brewery: He as a brewer, and she as a tastings and event planner.

Wilde, with sculpted features and blonde ponytail, may seem at first too conventionally pretty to be a hipster, but proves to be a very flawed, insecure human being: She’s the kind of person who waits until the last minute to pack before moving out of her apartment; She leaves decorations and leftover cake out days (weeks?) after her own birthday party; She gets drunk and sleeps with a co-worker only to regret it the next day.

Meanwhile, Johnson (Nick from “New Girl”) requires only a beard, a trucker hat, and a Chicago flag arm tattoo to be perceived as a beer brewer in a blue line neighborhood and he pulls it off. Luke is so realistic I feel like I’ve known guys much like him. He is fun-loving and enjoys attention, but he can also be brooding and jealous.

Anna Kendrick plays Jill, Luke’s girlfriend. She seems happy to be with him, but it’s clear he is more careful with her than I would expect from a guy who is in a long-term, live-in relationship. There’s love there, but both seem slightly uneasy. They treat each other with kid gloves, each not wanting to upset the other or show a less-than-stellar side of themselves. I’m glad they didn’t take the easy way out and make her into a clichéd, nay-saying girlfriend who’s clearly dragging him down. She’s as likable, and arguably more so, then the two leads.

And yet, maybe that’s what Johnson’s character finds so appealing about Wilde’s: He can be himself around her, even if it means being a jealous, ridiculing, and at-times cruel self. Their interactions ring truer by far than those between Luke and Jill, even if they feel much less comfortable for the viewer to watch. The film shows that contrast well.

Wilde, at the film’s start, is in an eight-month relationship with Chris (Ron Livingston, aka, that guy from the 1999 cult classic “Office Space”), a record producer considerably her senior. She doesn’t seem to connect with him. She refuses to sleep over at his place, and he is clearly not interested in beer, one of her life’s passions. Despite this, her eyes light up when Luke suggests that maybe she and Chris will get married someday.

Chris disappears from this film maybe a half hour in, once he breaks up with Kate after a weekend away with the gang early on in the film – which includes a great, intense scene between Livingston and Kendrick. Chris shows up only once more, to re-iterate his reasons for this break-up, and Kate leaves, dejected, only to find her bike’s front tire has been stolen from outside his (West Loop?) apartment. It’s a cruel city sometimes.

The rest of the movie is a lost weekend with Kate and Luke: Jill has vacated, ostensibly to go to Costa Rica with friends (Co-workers? I am not sure this is ever made clear). The two play house for a couple of days as they pack up Kate’s apartment for her move.

This is when what I feel what this film does extremely well happens. It doesn’t simply show sexual tension between Kate and Luke, but it also captures how amazing and enthralling, but also painful and confusing, it can feel to spend an extended period of time with someone you really like when you’re not really in an appropriate position to do so. No physical lines are crossed, but the unspoken knowledge that these two people are really, really into each other is there. And it’s not okay, because one of two has a significant other.

Of course, the fairy tale weekend falls apart when Luke injures himself during the move, and when Kate balks, he realizes that, unlike Jill, Kate is nearly useless in a crisis. He needs the stability Jill offers, even if he might not like to admit that. But what really kills the dream is the second Kate calls him out on his bad behavior in even being there at all: she, after all, is single, while he is not. With this acknowledgment of the unspoken thing going on between them, a line is crossed, and they both know it.

I loved the true-to-life interactions of these two characters, no matter how small. Kate and Luke are too similar in their live-in-the-now attitudes and slightly chaotic existences. In the storyline we’re not seeing, two other characters may be finding the other too stable, too intellectual, maybe even boring. The story ends the same, either way: It just won’t work.

The ending is definitely open to interpretation, so I’m curious to hear how others took it. Additionally, I didn’t know until after I saw this movie that the script is improvised, which is interesting since I found the dialogue so authentic.

See for yourself how it stacks up. Check out “Drinking Buddies” now on Netflix – preferably with a can of Revolution’s Anti-Hero or Bottom-Up Wit.

Meryl Williams is a writer in Chicago. She manages and edits 60625, a news site that covers Chicago’s Lincoln Square and Albany Park neighborhoods.

Meryl Williams

Meryl is a journalist and southeastern Ohio transplant who loves binge-watching shows on Netflix, listening to upbeat indie music with starkly depressing lyrics, and shamelessly ordering the Kids Pack-size popcorn at the movies. She has been known to over-share on her blog, and she is okay with that.

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