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'Drinking Buddies' review: Olivia Wilde gives best performance to date in impressive improvised comedy

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Is it possible for extraordinarily close friends of the opposite sex to remain platonic? Brimming with sexual tension, director-writer Joe Swanberg’s “Drinking Buddies” is a delightful and natural exploration of friendship that is at once honest, refreshingly funny and uncomfortably real.

Kate (Olivia Wilde) and Luke (Jake Johnson) are best friends and co-workers at a Chicago craft brewery. So in tandem with their lives, they could almost be twins; they chide each other, finish each other’s thoughts, flirt or provide comfort but most of all, enjoy drinking… a lot. But outside their friendship, Luke and Kate are in relationships with Jill (Anna Kendrick) and Chris (Ron Livingston) respectively. When the two couples take a weekend vacation together, they each come to realize that perhaps none of their relationships and friendships really are what they originally thought. 

This is such a quiet exploration of love. Kate and her boyfriend Chris make better friends than lovers as each wishes the other to be someone who they just really aren’t. But it’s not that black and white because they really do like each other but are unfortunately forcing compatibility. Luke and Jill, on the other hand, love each other but have become so complacent in their relationship that they are bored. When Jill brings up having children, Luke snaps out of his complacency, and instead of moving on with Jill, turns his attention and desire to Kate.  The quartet plays a game of relationship musical chairs, where hopefully when the music stops each has found the partner right for them.

Of course the connection among the four characters is beer. Like on any first date, alcohol is needed to break down uncomfortable barriers and elicit emotions or squelch fears. Such is the case here. Luke, Kate, Chris and Jill are constantly drinking throughout this film and during the moments of pure intoxication, they all let their guard down, finally revealing their core. Swanberg and his cast unfold these emotions in a quiet, methodical, but very realistic manner. As Luke and Kate move closer into the same emotional arena, as if moving into the middle of a Venn diagram, the tension builds within the situation, but Swanberg, with Wilde’s and Johnson’s improv, make the characters unpredictable, thus creating slight emotional whiplash.

“Drinking Buddies” avoids the typical romantic-comedy tropes and instead, without being too sobering, delivers a raw slice of every-day life, where things just aren’t always predictable and relationships that are “supposed” to work out, just don’t always find their way. Swanberg treats this film as cinéma vérité, as if a camera was discreetly placed among this group of friends, documenting the truth, hardships and pleasures of every day relationships. The film, like most individuals, follows its own set of rules which makes the viewing experience unpredictable, tender and genuine. Most of that is a product of the actors’ improvisation, which directly influences the tone of the film.

The realism stems from the natural performances, which are derived from Swanberg’s on-set writing and the actors’ improvisation.  Wilde is the nucleus and Johnson, Livingston and Kendrick all orbit around her, and based on her varying moods, their reactions are palpable. While some of the situations that occur are slightly obvious, only because they really do happen to most people, the individual characters are hardly forced into a mold. Kendrick excels at being the perfect girl-next-door while suppressing so much emotion. She plays Jill with just the right amount of sophistication, timidity and pent-up desire. Livingston takes what ordinarily would be a stereotype and makes him wise beyond his years, emotionally stable and mature.

“New Girl’s” Jake Johnson is the most affable of the bunch. On the surface Luke appears to be a man-child, the college partier who never quit. But he’s a hard worker and is the most honest with himself. He knows exactly who he is and what he wants. Johnson’s frenetic energy is addictive and often hilarious. He’s just as wonderful doing comedic improve as he is with subtle emotion.

Olivia Wilde is at her all-time best as Kate. She effortlessly captures the wide spectrum and complications of friendship within a short period of time. On the surface Kate is the best type of quirky one can be; silly, effervescent and inclusive, but then inside she is lost, ambivalent to choice and frightened, like most people, of rejection. On top of that, Kate is the only female at the male-dominated brewery, and she thrives off the male competitiveness for her attention, which naturally irks Luke.  Whether or not this film will gain the mass attention it deserves, it should be seen for Wilde’s wonderful and nuanced performance.

Also making brief comedic appearances are Jason Sudeikis and director Ti West, who in his own right is one of today’s most original voices in American horror cinema.

With excellent acting, a free-form script and a sensitive, unique take on romance, “Drinking Buddies” is like one of those wonderful conversations over beers with friends.

“Drinking Buddies” is in limited theaters and available Video On-Demand. Magnolia Pictures. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 1 hour and 30 minutes.

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