Anna Kendrick: Drinking Buddies (2013)
By Mark Abraham· Nov 26, 2013
Just FYI, this article contains material that might be considered spoilery based on our spoiler policy. In this instance, that includes discussion of things that are totally spontaneous, right? Totally.
The basic idea for Drinking Buddies, it seems, was to do a mumblecore take on a more traditional rom com. There was no script, the main characters are brewery workers so the actors apparently actually got drunk for their scenes, there’s an extended scene where Luke (Jake Johnson) berates Kate (Olivia Wilde) for the unclean state of her apartment, and Ron Livingston is in it. I realize that this is a list of seemingly unrelated things, but guess what watching this movie is like?
“Mumblecore” covers such a broad variety of films now that the term is almost meaningless, but it has sort of become the default vanity indie genre for more famous actors looking to cred out their resume. For Drinking Buddies, Anna Kendrick is probably the most famous (or at least the most bankable) of the film’s four stars, so thankfully it’s not quite Ben Stiller in Greenberg. That was…well, I dunno, ‘cause I fell asleep halfway through. But it’s not an attempt to redefine our view of a given actor, is my point, or even to lend legitimacy to a mumblecore staple, meaning that the attraction of the film isn’t rooted in the Punch-Drunk Love-factor of it all. Also, thankfully, no character in this movie is stuck in some weird, cutesy state of arrested development, which is like my least favorite thing; the characters, possibly barring Chris (Livingston), are all a bit immature, but they all have regular old boring jobs and lives. And Chris is only not immature because he doesn’t matter as a character: like all Boyfriends of a Certain Age with Regular Jobs and Money in films like this it’s clear from the outset that he is not a good match for Kate, because…that’s what happens in films like this, and he’s outta there halfway through. He’s that guy who is only a pit stop on the road to Kate’s unresolution, because films like this are scared shitless of resolution.
That said, Drinking Buddies isn’t a bad film. It’s more that it’s frustrating. It’s half-mumblecore, sort of, making it neither fish nor fowl, meaning the most interesting thing about it is its least interesting thing: the lack of script. I get that the idea for no-script films is to make the dialogue and interactions of the characters more realistic; it just always seems to me like the result is the opposite. It’s not that things are predictable, so much as the dialogue becomes a reflection of the fact that actors and editors are influenced by popular media too, just like everybody is, so the dialogue tends to hit predictable emotional beats even as the dialogue itself sounds underwritten. It’s nice that a lot of the shots lack cuts, meaning the scenes in Drinking Buddies were full takes, but still: there’s a lot of actors staring at each other that doesn’t read “natural”; it reads “what’s the most appropriate thing I would say if I were being natural?” It’s a simulacrum of natural. A simpler way to put that? Fake.
It’s a shame here because I think the story is interesting. Luke’s in a serious relationship with Jill (Kendrick), and Kate has just started to date Chris. But Luke and Kate are co-workers at a Chicago craft brewery and serial flirters. The opening of the film suggests that the two are secret soulmates, and while the film spins towards its unresolution where Luke and Jill are kind of wrong for each other and Chris dumps Kate after making out with Jill, what also happens is that the fantasy Luke and Kate have of one another is fantastically and realistically destroyed over the course of one weekend because he’s a neat freak and a hot head and she’s messy as fuck and also doesn’t give a fuck. And that scene is pretty fantastic.
It’s the one point in the film where I think the dialogue works, because Kate suddenly can’t believe that she liked this controlling ass but also isn’t quite ready to cut him the fuck out, so she upends the dinner plans they had in favor of inviting the whole brewery crew out for drinks. It’s avoidance, sure, but she’s right that she doesn’t owe him anything. Luke, meanwhile, is super-upset because he wants to fuck already and this might be his last easy chance to do so because Jill’s out of town. It’s kind of brilliant, even if the buildup to it seems arbitrary in hindsight: Luke is also mad because Kate is messy and he cut his hand on her couch and a random guy got mad at where he parked the moving van; like, wasn’t just him being kind of an emotional, lusty vampire enough? Because that’s really the essence of the scene: part of why Kate is over this and him is that Luke is trying really hard to just let the fucking happen without actually making a move; he doesn’t want to say it out loud because “willful cheater” contradicts the image he has of himself. When things implode, Luke pissily notes that Kate slept in the same bed with him the night before like that was a binding contract; she’s having none of it, and says exactly the correct thing: “well, you let me.” I do think the film probably lets Kate off the hook a little in that moment for letting it get that far—she does establish a reasonable relationship with Jill earlier in the film—but she’s absolutely right: she’s not really doing anything wrong, she’s single, and he doesn’t get to turn his shitty behavior into an accusation of her being a cock tease.
Elsewhere, the lack of script means that these emotional beats are filtered through half-baked dialogue and weird moments that seem to undercut the dissolution of the various character’s lust/like for one another. This is on top of the fact that, far as we can tell, the only reason Jill and Chris makeout—when the four of them are on vacay together—is to make it okay that Luke’s being a dickhole, because otherwise he’s just being a dickhole to a very nice person. It’s also weird that for parts of the end of the film it seems like maybe him being a dickhole is the point, but then at the very end Luke proposes. It seems a cheat, maybe, or maybe there just isn’t enough in the problems of his relationship with Jill except a generic portrayal of his commitment issues. At times it seems like Kate isn’t the thing so much as self-sabotage is the thing; at others he’s just a weak-willed guy who through serendipity avoided making a stupid mistake, and then serendipity doubled down by having Jill reveal she cheated on him. Which…is too good an ending for him, especially because the next day he and Kate are friends again.
Ultimately, the no-script thing makes it seem more like this is the first draft of a film. Kendrick is good, though. She’s kind of got the most thankless role in the film, because she’s supposed to be the boring alternative to Kate’s Kateness, and on top of that she spends the latter half of the film in an upset fugue over the fact that she cheated on Luke, even if it was only a little kissing. She never finds out that Luke was fully planning on letting shit just happen between himself and Kate, but she plays the double-meanings of her concern when Luke tells her Kate broke up with Chris really well. It’s not bouncing and acting good, but she’s one of the reasons this film isn’t a total bore.