Kate (Olivia Wilde) and Luke (Jake Johnson) are brewery workers and close friends, drinking on the job, comme d’habitude, and enjoying an ongoing flirtation made up of teasing, playful shoving and the occasional glance that lasts too long. At the outset of the film, both are unavailable. Luke is in a long-term relationship with Jill (Anna Kendrick), a smiley and sweet special education teacher who seems to be a good fit for him. Kate is in a considerably more recent relationship with the slightly older Chris (Ron Livingston), a pleasant oddball with vague social awkwardness.
Very little unfolds in a conventional plotting sense throughout “Drinking Buddies.” The two couples stay for a weekend at Chris’ seaside cabin, and then return; Luke and Kate continue their nightly habit of beer-drinking and pool-playing with the brewery staffers before heading to their respective homes; Jill decides to go on a college reunion trip to Costa Rica. A break-up occurs, revealed not through a scene but a well-placed edit.
The film instead focuses on the tension -- palpable and undetected -- that occurs moment to moment in relationships, and on the characters’ fleeting, constantly evolving and multi-faceted reactions to each other. Kate, the lone woman at the brewery and apparently also in her network of friends, has a one-of-the-guys goofiness that covers up her insecurity about being accepted by men. During a funny and sad moment, she tells Luke that the love of her life, now lost to dating history, broke up with her by saying that their relationship needed “to take a knee.”
Luke isn’t so much caught between two very appealing women as he is floating between them. He’s aware that with one lean-in or hand placement his situation would immediately become morally precarious, but -- somewhat refreshingly -- he doesn’t judge himself too harshly, rather feeling the edges of his predicament, neither committed to resisting it nor convinced that it’s worth pushing. Jill, surprised by a sudden attraction to Chris early in the film, carries the weight of guilt with her. Either prompted by this outside assailing attraction or not, she gently broaches the idea of marriage with Luke, a topic that has been discussed in the past and left hanging.
On paper, the long-term girlfriend looking for marriage is a fairly thankless role, but neither Swanberg nor a very good Kendrick let this happen. Kendrick is one of the more charming young actors working right now, usually hitting a sweet spot between girl-next-door appeal and intensely focused nerdiness. She’s hilarious in the film, as is Wilde, who digs into her spastic tomboy role with a natural confidence. Johnson, hidden behind a scruffy beard and frayed baseball cap, gives Luke a sincerity and quiet frustration, while Livingston makes his short screen time count, making Chris at once socially reluctant but strangely self-possessed.
Swanberg forgoes his multi-hyphenate as cinematographer here and hands the camera over to Ben Richardson (“Beasts of the Southern Wild”), who retains the director’s spontaneous, detail-sensitive shooting style while adding a pleasantly professional sheen to the proceedings. If Swanberg’s best work in eight years of filmmaking, “Hannah Takes the Stairs,” looks at the constant struggle of young people to articulate what they want -- both to others and themselves -- “Drinking Buddies” works as the slightly more grown-up version of that, and indeed rivals the 2007 film.
Kate, Luke, Jill and Chris, anywhere from a few to many years older than Greta Gerwig’s insatiably awkward Hannah, know what they’re drawn to, but, with more life experience and commitment under their belts, are in a perpetual state of indecision -- is the thing one wants the thing that’s best? Swanberg, like his characters, doesn’t push for an answer, but rather lets things drift in a remarkably realistic way. People move toward each other and then away, and it can all happen in an instant. And then, in the next instant, it begins over again.