When Harry Met Sally asked the age of question of “Can men and women be friends?” back in 1989, answered it (nope), and yet generations after are still plagued by it. Scores of movies about relationship dynamic grey areas — No Strings Attached, Friends with Benefits, Just Friends — have all come and gone, all answering that question the same way Harry and Sally did, but without any of the charm or true insight about male and female relationships past a certain age.
Drinking Buddies, while not a gender-specific title, once again explores that topic, only with a hell of a lot more alchohol. Luke (Jake Johnson, in full-on, charming Nick Miller-with-an-intense-beard mode) and Kate (Olivia Wilde, once and for all proving her chops as a leading lady) are co-workers at a brewery who have an intense chemisty and palpable sexual tension. So why haven’t these two friends hooked up? Especially with all that booze around? Well, for starters, they’re both in relationships, he with an adorable, kind gal named Jill (the delightful Anna Kendrick) and she with, well, sort of a dullard named Chris (Ron Livingtson, stepping into the semi-villain role).
They’re two young, attractive pals who, by all accounts should be together. The work hard, they play hard, they make each other laugh, and they genuinely care about each other. The problem is, unlike most romantic comedy couples who build their love and admiration for each other, are acutely aware of it. These buddies often blur the line between friends and something more with not-so-innocent innocent gestures like holding hands or cuddling on the couch.
The interesting thing about Drinking Buddies — which played like a bona-fide crowd pleaser at its premiere at the SXSW festival on Saturday night in Austin — is that it taps into every romantic comedy sensibility (the mounting tension, anticipating a “happy ending”) but goes in a completely different direction. In a typical romantic comedy, Luke’s girlfriend would be a monster (and despite sharing an impulsive smooch with Chris during a weekend getaway with both the couples, she is far from) and we’d be rooting for these two to finally hook up.
But, towards the last half hour of Drinking Buddies (which starts to get a little bitter and hard to swallow like, well, the very beer they’ve been drinking through the entire thing) Kate’s attitude turns from cute to grating, and her treatment of Luke (who is no saint himself in this situation) does the unthinkable: it makes you hope they just stay friends. I won’t tell you how this whole things winds up, but I will tell you this: remarkably, no one seems to have a hangover during the entire movie. Now that is something to marvel.
It’s fitting that Drinking Buddies is centered around beer drinkers. Like Sideways, it perfectly taps into a certain kind of drinker and a certain kind of romance, and it’s the perfect analogy for the film itself: fun, doesn’t take itself too seriously, will be liked by men and women equally, and even if you love most of it, it might still leave you with something of a bitter aftertaste if you were looking for the same reliable thing.
Johnson, as he does every week on television, steals the show here, though to be fair the entire cast (including a cameo from Wilde’s real-life love Jason Sudeikis, who gets in a few big laughs in his limited screen time) is talented and a total joy to watch. During the post-screening Q&A, Wilde (who is also a producer on the project) told the audience it was the most fulfilling work of her career to date, and the enthusiasm certainly shines through.
The ingredients for a perfect comedy are all there, including keen direction from Joe Swanberg, but sometimes it can get a little foggy. (Hey, there’s a lot of booze involved). Drinking Buddies really gets down to the nitty, gritty of male and female friendships and dynamics, and may ring uncomfortably true for some viewers, but in the end it’s as fun as a night on the town with your best drinking buddy. Whatever your status with them might be.
[Photo credit: Ben Richardson]