Saturday 14 September 2013

Review: Drinking Buddies

Year: 2013
Director: Joe Swanberg
Screenplay: Joe Swanberg
Starring: Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick, Ron Livingstone

Synopsis is here:

It would be easy to consider Drinking Buddies as “mumblecore getting an upgrade, but that would be a little bit of a lie. It’s been just over a decade since this wave of naturalistic, low-fi films first appeared with 2002’s noble but uneven Funny Ha Ha. However the sub-genre has been making leaps and jumps with every other entry, and much of the mumblecore crew have made themselves known names. Greta Gerwig looks set to be a generation’s indie queen. Mark Duplass has been making me guffaw in The League and Lena Dunham?  Well let’s just say Girls may become one of the most important female driven series of the tweenies (is that what we call this decade?)

That said, Drinking Buddies is a large jump from my previous viewings of Swanberg’s earlier work. While you’d be hard pressed to find a U.K copy of Kissing on the Mouth, with its rawer than butcher’s meat look at sex and relationships, Drinking Buddies has the kind of gloss that will make less adventurous film fans feel right at home. The film also features a cast that just wouldn't be seen in Swanberg’s earlier films. Credit should go to Swanberg’s prolific work and plaudits here, as now his work can commend stronger, more accomplished actors for his work (Gerwig aside of course).

The cleaner aesthetic and cast are certainly a shock for a viewer who knows Swanberg for his smaller works and not necessarily for the better. Thematically Drinking Buddies is still the kind of white first world problems I find myself oddly attached to (Yet, I’m cold to Richard Curtis...go figure), but the jump from the rugged, D.I.Y feel, to something more mainstream is a large jump and a jarring one. Not everyone will have this issue, but what excited me so often about the mumblecore movement was how the messiness of the characters lives seemed mirrored within the aesthetic. The upgrade in style does not mesh as well as before. It may just be me, but something feels missing from the piece and I really believe it’s this. Then again my favourites of the sub-genre (In Search of a Midnight Kiss, Medicine for Melancholy) have a keener visual eye than perhaps Swanberg, who appears focused on the improv work between the characters.

Like many of the mumblecore movies I’ve seen, I do enjoy how characters interact and develop. The female characters in particular. While the men are often the schluby, slacker types that we often find everywhere in romantic media these days (note the perfectly cast Jake Johnson from New Girl), the women hold a sense of control and emotion that I always find appealing. They’re smart but not always right, emotional but not needlessly hysterical. I find that if I take a dislike to girls like Olivia Wilde’s Kate (the best performance I’ve viewed from the actress), it’s never for long and it’s mostly because they truly have an amount of control that doesn’t feel held by what we expect a female character should do.  Swanberg’s choice on a heavily improvised screenplay is effective. Emotional moments turn on a sixpence, even if not as strong as previously seen.  

Drinking Buddies does work, despite the shellshock of its more commercial aspects. There’s no doubt that there is something taken away from before and that the same roughness that had me drawn to these kinds of films is missed. It’s clear from the films affectionate look at fragile foundations of bosom buddies, that this is not Swanberg “selling out” in the conventional sense. Yet give me a store brought video camera and a few actors that don’t nail there scenes as well as Anna Kendrick does, and I feel there would be something even stronger.