About 25 years ago, When Harry Met Sally… popularized a notion that plagued many platonic relationships: How can men and women just be friends when sexual attraction keeps getting in the way? The new comedy-drama Drinking Buddies updates that notion by suggesting that tension isn’t a detriment as much as it is a welcome spice.
Written and directed by Joe Swanberg, a micro-budget filmmaker known for character comedies like Hannah Takes the Stairs, Drinking Buddies features his most high-profile cast engaging in a warm, smart take on relationships and romantic uncertainty. Set in Chicago, the film stars Olivia Wilde as Kate, a tomboy-ish employee at a local craft beer company that’s mostly made up of men. Her best friend, Luke (Jake Johnson), also works there, and they have the sort of flirty, intimate rapport that would lead you to think that they’re a couple. But they’re not: Despite their clear connection, they’re involved with other people—Luke with his long-term live-in girlfriend Jill (Anna Kendrick), and Kate with a new guy, Chris (Ron Livingston). Jill isn’t threatened by Kate, and no one at the company is scandalized by Luke and Kate’s close friendship: That’s just the way those two are.
Drinking Buddies sets up expectations that perhaps Luke and Kate are going to realize they’re perfect for each other, but Swanberg’s film is thankfully more sophisticated than that. The point isn’t that they’re “meant” for each other—it’s that their relationship is so ideal for them because it exists outside the typical boundaries of opposite-sex parameters. Though it’s not mentioned, it’s assumed that they’ve never slept together—or even kissed, for that matter—and so their sexual chemistry has so much sizzle because it’s never been acted on. Luke has a loving, playful, fulfilling relationship with Jill—Swanberg doesn’t take the easy route by trapping them in a passionless rut—but Luke’s friendship with Kate allows him to indulge in a no-strings-attached arrangement with a beautiful, engaging woman. As for Kate, Luke represents a safer, less complicated male relationship that doesn’t involve the insecurity and heartbreak of dating. It works for them and those around them, so why should it be a problem?
Not surprisingly, difficulties eventually arise when Luke, Jill, Chris and Kate decide to go on a vacation together to a secluded beach house, but it’s again to Swanberg’s credit that those roadblocks don’t play out exactly as one might expect. (It’s better not to spoil anything, but let it be said that the problems don’t stem from anything our two central characters do.) Instead of becoming a simplistic should-they-or-shouldn’t-they? plot, Drinking Buddies explores how all relationships—platonic or otherwise—are acts of faith, the participants’ bond sometimes shattered for the most unexpected of reasons. And as the movie highlights, there are few things scarier than the doubt that starts to creep into your head when your sense of security about that other person evaporates.
Swanberg’s film is essentially a small-scale drama made funny by the easy, witty banter of its protagonists. With the exception of Kendrick, who seems a bit hemmed in by her milquetoast character, Drinking Buddies’ leads give vibrant, lifelike performances that feel off-the-cuff without falling into a mannered, improvisational “realism” that mistakes amateurishness for authenticity. Swanberg doesn’t place judgments on Kate and Luke’s friendship, and Wilde and Johnson respond with likable, relaxed turns that suggest that their characters have never spent a moment worrying about their unconventional relationship. But that doesn’t mean that Kate and Luke aren’t aware of the sexual tension that both fuels and serves as a potential destroyer of their bond. Drinking Buddies ultimately may not be that revelatory in its depiction of love and commitment, but it observes its characters with a lot of compassion. You want the best for Kate and Luke—whether it’s with each other or not.
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.
Starring: Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick, Ron Livingston
Release Date: Aug. 23, 2013