DRINKING BUDDIES has divided critical opinion since its release in 2013: some reviewers have welcomed Joe Swanberg's film as an honest portrayal of thirtysomething characters and their inabilities to sustain long-lasting relationships; others have berated it for its halting plot-lines, banal dialog and lack of closure.
Although billed as a comedy, the film pulls no punches in its depiction of all four central characters, whose inability to express themselves is palpable. Their frequent use of clichéd phraseology ("great," "awesome,") punctuated with frequent verbal pauses ("um.." "er...") doesn't suggest inarticulateness, but a reluctance to disclose their true feelings, for fear of seeming weak or insecure. The title DRINKING BUDDIES is a suggestive one, for it is within a group situation in a bar, a glass of beer in hand, that sustains at least two of the characters, Kate (Olivia Wilde) and Luke (Jake Johnson). They can either indulge in false bonhomie with their work colleagues, or refrain from talking altogether and play pool instead. Luke tries his best to recreate the same atmosphere wherever he goes; when he and Kate accompany Jill (Anna Kendrick) and Chris (Ron Livingston) on a weekend away in the wilds of Michigan, Luke plays blackjack with Jill and Kate.
When the characters are removed from such situations, however, they are rendered virtually inarticulate. Chris finds it difficult to tell Kate that he wants to break up with her; and even when he does, she refuses to believe him. Jill sits in bed with Luke and tries desperately to persuade him to think seriously about their forthcoming wedding; Luke promises to do so, but we can understand from his body-language that he is simply trying to change the subject. In a climactic scene, Luke helps Jill to move house; when they are finished, they spend the night together. We expect them to fall into one another's arms; but instead they end up having a tiff. Their inarticulateness proves their undoing; imprisoned by their linguistic and emotional hang-ups, they cannot discuss anything in a meaningful way.
Shot on a low-budget without musical accompaniment, Swanberg relies on a series of lengthy shot/reverse shot sequences to reinforce his thematic concerns. The camera lingers on the actors as they cast quick glances at one another, and then look away at something else - a beer glass, a pillow, a picnic hamper, or a picture. The objects within the frame provide them with emotional as well as physical refuge from the (painful) experience of having to understand what their interlocutors feel. They are alienated; just like the viewer, who finds it difficult to sympathize with any of the protagonists.
The film ends on a note of cautious optimism, as Luke and Jill attempt some kind of (silent) reconciliation as they silently eat their lunches in a small room. It is significant, however, that neither of them look directly into one another's eyes; in fact, they consciously avoid what for them is a painful maneuver. As a result we remain skeptical as to whether the two of them will actually make up at all; they seemed to have learned nothing from their previous experiences.
DRINKING BUDDIES is in many ways a painful film to watch, as it lays bare the realities of living in a world whose inhabitants seem so busy that they never have time for one another. It communicates a series of human truths that we would do well to understand.