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AUSTIN - The easy temptation would be to say that Joe Swanberg has made some sort of major jump from the films that he has made in the past to his new film, "Drinking Buddies," which made its debut tonight at the Paramount Theater, part of this year's SXSW film festival. I don't think that's true, though. It's an evolution, definitely, but I don't think it's a radical shift so much as it's another small step forward, resulting in what may well be his most accessible and enjoyable film to date.
Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson star as Kate and Luke, friends who both work at a micro-brewery. He's one of the brewers, and she's involved in actually getting the beer picked up by distributors around the country. They are good friends at work and after work as well, and the whole opening 20 minutes of the film, Swanberg does a tremendous job of capturing the rhythm of a long, boozy night out at the bar with a bunch of friends, and it's only once the night wraps up that we see both of them go home to their respective partners. Luke's in a longtime relationship with Jill, Anna Kendrick's character, and Kate's been dating Chris (Ron Livingston) for almost a year. Even so, there are strong obvious signs of attraction between Kate and Luke, and for a while, it looks like the film is going to be about some boozy transgression that ruins everything.
Swanberg's got something far more sly and subtle in mind, though, and I have to give him credit… I think the film is very wise about relationships and attraction and small temptations and genuine yearning, and I think Wilde and Johnson are both fantastic in the film. Having just seen Wilde in "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone," where she's obviously been cast as eye candy and also to try to motivate the sudden awakening of Steve Carell's character to his own prickishness, Wilde does everything she can to make that role interesting. She's good in it, but that's a case of an actor doing everything they can to make something thin work. Here, she's given a very rich character to play, and she does the most natural, charming work of her career so far in response. I remember the first time I noticed her in a movie was "Bickford Shmeckler's Cool Ideas," and in that film, she's all glammed up playing the unattainable dream girl. Frequently over the course of her career so far, the roles she's played have focused on the fact that she is indeed quite striking. But in "Drinking Buddies," she plays things more stripped down and natural than ever before, and she's so much more appealing as a result. There's a looseness, a sense of humor, and a willingness to play that defines the relationship Kate has with Luke, and he manages to make this a nonstop showcase for his own particular charisma.
The thing I particularly appreciated about the film is how attuned to nuance it really is. Very little of what happens between the characters is spoken aloud in any concrete sense. Instead, it's all about those things that they can't say, those lines that they're all aware of, and the tiny transgressions that blur that line in all of these relationships. While it's important that Wilde and Johnson pay off a particular kind of chemistry, the supporting roles by Livingston and Kendrick are just as crucial. Kendrick continues to impress, role to role, simply by adding new shades to what she does. This character is very vulnerable, almost a raw nerve, somewhat helpless in the face of her own emotions, and it's a version of Kendrick I'm totally unfamiliar with in anything she's played so far. Livingston is one of those guys doing strong work in small roles in films this year, memorably appearing both here and in Lynn Shelton's "Touchy Feely," which I reviewed at Sundance.
The cinematographer here is Ben Richardson, who made a splashy debut last year behind the camera as the photographer of "Beasts Of The Southern Wild," and at this point, it's safe to say I'm a fan. There is certainly a loose, organic feel to the film's visual plan, but it's impeccable in terms of composition, and everything, whether indoors or outdoors, feels totally natural. Swanberg would do well to try to keep as much of the core below-the-line team on this film together as he moves forward, because this has a sheen of polish that I haven't seen in his work before, and it's that little extra added touch that makes this feel more like a "movie."
"Drinking Buddies" is small, yes, and very intimate in terms of the issues it explores, but it is a clear-eyed emotionally mature look at human behavior, and I haven't been able to shake the very real emotional punch that it packs. I think it's a great showcase for all involved, both in front of the camera and behind it, and I hope someone picks it up and does right by it.
"Drinking Buddies" also play Wednesday and Saturday as part of the festival.
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