Of the DIY filmmakers who came up together in the loosely affiliated “mumblecore” movement of the mid-aughts, writer-director Joe Swanberg seemed for a long time intent on applying the genre’s half-defined tenets (low budget, little plot, naturalistic style) to as many movies as possible. His filmography has swollen to include over a dozen features, many seen only at festivals, with titles like Privacy Setting and Autoerotic, sometimes costarring Swanberg himself.
But Swanberg’s newest film, Drinking Buddies, feels less like one of these movies and more like one made by the Duplass brothers (Cyrus or Jeff, Who Lives at Home) or Lynn Shelton (Your Sister’s Sister or Touchy Feely). It stars recognizable actors and sustains a tone that is, while still naturalistic and improvisatory, flirts with finding a place within a very familiar genre, the romantic comedy.
Of course, Drinking Buddies only seems Hollywood-ish compared to rawer Swanberg projects like Nights and Weekends. By the standards of contemporary rom-com, the movie is practically a documentary. It begins at a craft brewery managed by Kate (Olivia Wilde), who works hard to please her boss Gene (an uncredited Jason Sudeikis) and has a close relationship with scruffy, jokey Luke (Jake Johnson), one of the brewers. They go out drinking together, they eat lunch together, they play-fight together, and they would seem destined for a romantic relationship (or able to pass as boyfriend and girlfriend already), if not for the fact that they already have those relationships with other people. Luke lives with Jill (Anna Kendrick), while Kate has been seeing Chris (Ron Livingston).
Early in the movie, the two couples go away for a weekend, and even with Luke and Kate’s closeness in full view, no one says anything about their pairing (or lack thereof). In fact, a guiding principle of Drinking Buddies, and the one that makes the film surprisingly affecting, are the deep feelings that go unsaid. Like mumblecore movies, it features plenty of dialogue, much of it seemingly improvised: Kate and Luke talk about relationships, Luke and Jill talk about marriage, Chris and Jill talk about their significant others. But the subject of Kate and Luke remains, for much of the movie, a given. They are close, affectionate friends, growing closer, with little overt discussion.
The effect could be maddening, a feature-length avoidance of the elephant in the room. But Wilde, Johnson, and Kendrick make that avoidance appealing. Luke does not appear unhappy with Jill, whom Kendrick plays with a low-key variation on her considerable movie-star charm. Wilde’s Kate is at once alluring as girlfriend material and also slightly dicey (her sunglasses give the impression that she may be casually stylish, a functioning alcoholic with a perpetual hangover, or both). Her scenes with Johnson have the electric charge of unspoken mutual attraction. In its offbeat, handheld way, the movie is profoundly romantic. Unlike so many romantic comedies, the characters’ humanity makes their situation both giddy and dangerous.
Given how much suspense Drinking Buddies quietly generates over whether Luke and Kate will act on their attraction, it’s all the more remarkable that Swanberg never turns his film into a feature-length moral dilemma about cheating. The lack of a clear resolution for Luke and Kate is enough drama on its own, even when the movie turns more serious — and it does have plenty of laughs, without pushing the comedy too hard. With a single switch to charming actors and a more professional cinematographer (Beasts of the Southern Wild‘s Ben Richardson, providing handheld widescreen compositions; the director shot many of his earlier films himself), Swanberg has made one of the most engaging post-mumblecore relationship movies.
Swanberg plays a bit part in Drinking Buddies, and casts horror director Ti West (The Innkeepers) in a supporting role. Both costar in Adam Wingard’s You’re Next, a clever slasher picture that opened in the US on the same day as Drinking Buddies. Swanberg plays Drake, the most outwardly unpleasant child in a large family that gets together to celebrate an anniversary and winds up hunted for their lives.
In tracking that progression, You’re Next appears to be a home invasion movie like The Strangers, with creepy masked assailants stalking helpless protagonists for no discernible reason. The movie distinguishes itself from doomier variations on this genre by introducing the family members — including Swanberg’s snobbish Drake, the put-upon Crispian (AJ Bowen) and his girlfriend Erin (Sharni Vinson), black sheep Felix (Nicholas Tucci) and his unsmiling girlfriend Zee (Wendy Glenn) — with notes of dysfunctional comedy. Swanberg is particularly amusing as the teasing brother who can’t stop himself from making judgmental comments even after a series of horrifying killings and injuries.
The film offers some smart if not groundbreaking twists, while remaining more or less parallel to a typical horror-movie path. Like Drinking Buddies, most of its dynamics are recognizable. In You’re Next, Erin emerges as a stronger, more resourceful figure than the movie first hints. Many horror movies feature plucky heroines in constant danger, but home invasion horrors tend to essay realism by making their victims’ plights feel hopeless. Vinson gives the movie an entertaining jolt.
Despite its disturbing moments, the film is mostly fun. You’re Next doesn’t upend its origins in the manner of, say, The Cabin in the Woods. It doesn’t even suggest any themes or subtext to explore. But it’s a slasher movie that works, just as Drinking Buddies is a romantic comedy without the self-conscious lighthearted (and lightheaded) cutesiness. Both movies infuse genre conventions with less predictable DIY spirit.