There is a spate of movies recently that don’t end the way you’d think they would, the way movies used to: Hollywood endings, people running while music plays too loudly, and so on. They are romantic comedies, mostly, or romantic dramas: movies like last year’s under-appreciated The First Time, Kat Coiro’s And While We Were Here, starring Kate Bosworth, which comes out this Friday, and the recently released Drinking Buddies, starring Olivia Wilde and New Girl‘s Jake Johnson. You could call these films the novella or short story equivalent to thick, dog-eared undertakings like My Best Friend’s Wedding or 10 Things I Hate About You. The stories are slim, they are often shorter than most feature-length films, and they’ll probably leave you wanting more. But that’s mostly because Hollywood is like some gross carbohydrate that tricks your brain into wanting more of the thing you’ve already had plenty of: kisses, resolutions, tied-up loose ends, running. Those endings are less prevalent these days, which has the nice effect of curbing our greed, of allowing us to appreciate how an unresolved, messy or simple movie tastes.
“Mumblecore” is the genre critics used to describe Drinking Buddies, because its 32-year-old writer/director/editor, Joe Swanberg, has made several movies that could best be described by that word: 2007’s Hannah Takes the Stairs, for instance, and 2008’s Nights and Weekends. But Drinking Buddies just feels realistic, sometimes painfully so. If its characters aren’t able to fully connect with each other, it doesn’t seem to be because its director is keeping them apart for comedy’s or tension’s sake. It’s simply because they, like actual people in the world, increasingly cannot connect.
Swanberg lets the cast (which also includes Anna Kendrick as Jill, Jake Johnson’s live-in girlfriend, and Ron Livingston as Chris, Olivia Wilde’s newer boyfriend), to improvise, which helps to create many bright spots in the film: natural-feeling banter, fresh jokes, familiarly awkward attempts at flirtation, stilted group introductions, long-overdue bust-ups.
The brightest spots are Johnson and Wilde, who have probably done their best work thus far here. Johnson plays Luke, who makes beer at the Chicago-based brewery where Wilde works a desk job doing event planning. She’s the only woman at the brewery, and we’re immediately told that she’s one of the guys: she dips her finger in Luke’s beer at the lunch table, stays out late playing pool with the rest of the crew, and goes home buzzed to her boyfriend’s (Livingston’s) immaculate, capacious apartment, filled with mid-century modern furniture and lighting, where she picks food off his plate while insisting she isn’t hungry. Chris is tired, grown-up, organized: he eats proper meals, always uses coasters, and isn’t so sex-crazed that he can’t stop making out with her to give her a book he bought her that day (John Updike’s Rabbit, Run, which struck me as a patronizing gift for a late 20-something woman, but perhaps that’s the point: this guy doesn’t really get Kate).
Luke, for his part, might not be that ambitious, but he takes his job very seriously. But when he’s not working he’s touchy-feely with Kate, funny, goofy, sensitive, supportive. He’s a little bit too good to be true, if you ask me. Fun-loving and sensitive? A hard worker and and a partier? Anyway, they act as if they’ve known each other for years. It’s not until much later in the movie that we see that maybe his devoted girlfriend Jill has something to do with that, that despite his serious attraction to Kate, he might be lost without Jill — could not be as good a friend to people like Kate if he didn’t have Jill. Nevertheless, this is still a romantic comedy, so we initially have to see Jill and Chris as the serious ones and Kate and Luke as the fun ones.
It wouldn’t be fair to reveal whether Luke and Kate do or don’t get together. But regardless, the vast spaces in between their quasi-courtship are more exciting than whatever might or might not happen between them. In those spaces, Luke and Kate spar with each other, looking for answers, for control, and for more attention and pleasure than either deserves, seeing as they are both in committed relationships with other people. This current of indecision runs through most, if not all, of the generation their characters represent — Swanberg’s generation and mine, the millenials. It’s a generation that tends to hedge, keeps its options open even if it means risking losing a few of those options in the process. It’s a generation that was raised on divorce and economic boom and bust. Commitment doesn’t mean what it used to. That may be a cynical viewpoint but it’s an increasingly popular one.
So while Luke mulls the merits of marriage, he offers to take Kate out to a fancy dinner while Jill, his presumed future wife, is conveniently on vacation in Costa Rica. Disappointingly for Luke (and lovers of Hollywood endings), Kate doesn’t bite. She’d rather get some beers at a dive bar with Luke and the rest of the guys. Luke is annoyed, threatened, and seems “betrayed,” as Kate puts it. But why? At this point in the movie (small spoiler alert), Kate is single — free to do as she pleases. Luke is not. He wants to have his cake and eat it too. Kate may be immature, or not “domestic” enough, or whatever, but she’s not foolish enough to be Luke’s backdoor woman.
Given the relatively fresh context of millennial strife, maybe it’s not so surprising that Swanberg can take such a familiar rom-com configuration — the tense double-date, essentially — and make it revelatory again. Not that people failing to communicate properly or connect fully is a new thing. They fail to communicate here partly because they are trying to abide by certain societal rules, albeit as loosely as they can manage. And that’s another pleasure to be found in this truly great film: to see people at least trying to be honorable, even if they sometimes fail.