It’s hard for new parents not to find themselves regarding childless twentysomethings with a mix of envy and contempt. Compared with the unavoidable reality that is parenthood, their freedom seems staggering, impossible, ridiculous. All those late nights, those hangovers and brunches, those endless empty weekends: Did we, did I, really live that way? Why didn’t we appreciate it more? And then, as amazement curdles into resentment: Why don’t those shiftless layabouts get their acts together and have some kids?
It’s a testament to the skill behind Drinking Buddies, a portrait of two Chicago couples connected through the microbrewery where one member of each couple works, that its depiction of twentysomething freedom and confusion inspired neither of the emotions I’ve just described. Instead of envy, I felt empathy, and pity instead of contempt. The movie isn’t a tragedy by any stretch: just a richly observed slice of life. But the particular slice that it observes, the lager-lubricated culture of post-college dating and mating, is one that I was left feeling very glad to have permanently escaped.
The most important couple in the story isn’t technically a couple at all. It’s the two co-workers, Kate (Olivia Wilde) and Luke (Jake Johnson), who have a flirtatious office friendship and significant others waiting for them at home. The plot involves the fleeting attempt to bring those significant others into the same orbit. Kate induces her somewhat older lover, Chris (Ron Livingston), to invite Luke and his live-in girlfriend, Jill (Anna Kendrick), to his family’s vacation house for a couples weekend—a weekend that turns out to have complicated, relationship-altering consequences.
Those consequences, though, are not particularly melodramatic, which is one of the movie’s significant strengths. The director, Joe Swanberg, is working the same cultural vein as Lena Dunham’s HBO show Girls, and like Dunham he comes out of the world of “mumblecore,” a low-budget, half-improvised demi-genre about Millennials adrift. But in Drinking Buddies, he demonstrates that you don’t need Dunham’s shock-the-bourgeoisie coarseness or flair for the grotesque to capture the rootless, ruleless strangeness of modern courtship and modern sex.
The absence of rules feels like the controlling theme of Drinking Buddies. The characters have the same desires as earlier generations—for love, for sex, for stability, for marriage—but no pattern to follow in pursuit of them and no clear sense of what they’re supposed to do and say and feel along the way. Instead, it’s all social uncertainty, all questions with no definite answer.
For instance: For a couple that’s paired off but unvowed and unwed, what besides sex counts as infidelity? A kiss? An inappropriately intimate friendship? A skinny-dip? A sleepover? Or again: For a young woman who wants her live-in boyfriend to propose—the situation of Kendrick’s Jill, and the source of the movie’s most horrifically plausible awkward moments—what kind of timeline is appropriate? What hints are reasonable to drop? What level of ambiguity should you be willing to put up with? Or once more: For a young man with a girlfriend but a relationship that approximates a courtship with another woman—the situation of Johnson’s Luke with respect to Wilde’s Kate—is it reasonable to be jealous when that other woman finds herself temporarily single and sleeps with someone besides you?
This is a world where freedom can feel infinite for men. We can see why Luke, a shambling charmer, would want to postpone marriage as long as possible, and why Jill, weary of his immaturity and losing years to his hesitation, would feel drawn to the older, more grounded-seeming Chris. But then again Chris’s actual situation feels like a cautionary tale—unhappily dating younger women, murmuring about wishing he’d met the right girl earlier, unable to figure things out even now that middle age looms. Freedom extends longer for men, but in that length lies the temptation to postpone too long, to let the right woman slip away because the wrong ones seem so enticing.
Which is what Kate is, probably, allowing for the movie’s low-key ambiguities: Miss Wrong, with enough beauty and charm to always have another man in the on-deck circle and enough talent for self-sabotage to guarantee that she’ll always need to call him up to bat.
Olivia Wilde has been a lovely presence in a lot of entirely forgettable movies; her performance as Kate is the first time that she’s done something remarkable on screen. The rest of the cast is less magnetic but just as raw and real. Drinking Buddies is a modest film, rough around the edges, deliberately underwritten. But it’s also memorable, and timely, and true.