Aimlessness and ambiguity are often two factors that define the independent film. The justification is almost always the same: “That’s how life is.” To me, this often seems like a cover for the true motivation: “I couldn’t write a definitive ending or a story more properly motivated.” It’s true that the former story is likely true in some cases, and we’ll never know how often it is or isn’t what’s actually happened, but I’d wager it’s used as a cover more often than it should.
Drinking Buddies is a film that is aimless and I suppose also ambiguous in its ending. It follows two main characters, Kate (Olivia Wilde) and Luke (Jake Johnson), both of whom work at a Chicago brewery and are very good friends. So good, in fact, that it seems like they’re destined to be a romantic couple. In most movies, they would be. Maybe they are in this one, too. They both begin the film in a relationship with someone else: Kate is with Chris (Ron Livingston), while Luke is with Jill (Anna Kendrick). These are also good pairings, but not as perfect as Kate and Luke — or perhaps Chris and Jill.
There isn’t much of a plot. The characters hang out together and talk. Sometimes they fight, sometimes they wind up kissing, but mostly they just talk and try to figure out what to do with their lives, if they’re happy, etc. Most of the time, this is done over alcohol, hence the title. These are real-world problems, and while a lot of movies do wind up discussing them, the time Drinking Buddies dedicates far exceeds the majority of films out there.
I suppose in this regard the film succeeds. It allows its characters to talk for 90 minutes about real-world issues, never really solving them because “that’s how life is.” Problems don’t just go away after one discussion. This is true. But for an audience, hearing about them over and over — and they’re kind of petty, melodramatic issues, too, a lot of the time — is a grating experience. It also doesn’t help that some audience members will be dealing with similar issues in real life. This isn’t an escapism movie.
Sometimes, you go to the movies not to be simply entertained, but to learn more about people. Drinking Buddies wants to be one of those movies. But its aimlessness and lack of resolution prohibits that. You watch these characters talk for 90 minutes and get little, if anything, out of it. You’d be better off watching an episode of Dr. Phil — and that won’t even cost you a full hour and a half. I’ll save you the time: People are complicated and you can’t solve everything instantaneously.
In fact, anyone you meet in real life will be almost infinitely more complex than the ones you watching in Drinking Buddies. Day-to-day interactions are often very shallow — when’s the last time you had a heart-to-heart conversion with your billiards buddy? — and this movie captures that well. But it doesn’t allow for anything deeper. The fights and conflicts displayed in more personal moments are just as shallow — and even more laughable — than what goes on in front of the curtain.
It probably doesn’t help that much of the dialogue feels improvised, as if the actors were given vague motivations, told to drink some beer, and act out what they thought their characters would say. I suppose that could work, but some sort of firm plan is generally a more productive approach than simply letting the actors wing it. Count the number of “ums” in this film. (Of course, “that’s how it is in the real world.) Improv works best as comedy, and while Drinking Buddies has a few funny moments, it’s much more of a drama than a film designed to make you laugh.
I hate to simply come out and say that Drinking Buddies is boring, but that’s how I feel and there’s no point denying it. The characters aren’t interesting enough, the dialogue meanders as the actors try to come up with their lines, and not a whole lot happens. There’s constant tension — both of sexual and non-sexual in nature — but very little of it is acted upon. Just more talking about the same types of things they were talking about earlier.
The only reason that Drinking Buddies winds up being watchable at all — apart from the pretense of being “realistic” — is the actors. These are naturalistic performances, in large part because of the improvisational nature of the production. The actors have to be good and raw because they’re not entirely sure what they’re going to be doing. You can’t really prepare for a role like this one. These are good actors, and watching them play off one another is about the only enjoyment I got out of the film.
Drinking Buddies is an aimless and meandering film that purports to be a realistic portrayal of adult relationships. Is it that? Sure, I guess, but it’s also repetitive and doesn’t actually have as much to say as it thinks it does. Sure, it might be “like real life,” but lots of real life is boring and if you’re not going to inject your film with richer characters or more meaning, there isn’t much point. The actors try hard to keep the film at a watchable level, but I can’t recommend watching Drinking Buddies.