Welcome to The Fourth Wall, CHIRP's weekly e-conversation on cinema. This week's subject is the 2013 comedy-drama Drinking Buddies.
This edition is written by CHIRP Radio volunteers Kevin Fullam and Clarence Ewing.
We've delved into the world of marriage in The Fourth Wall via Revolutionary Road, but I don't think we've done the same with dating and singledom? Countless hours and millions of dollars have gone into trying to figure out which sorts of people are compatible. And parsing it further, which traits are compatible. Christian Rudder turned the "science" of compatibility into a dating website (OKCupid) and later a book (Dataclysm) which revealed all sorts of interesting societal quirks that were gleaned while trying to crack this mystery.
[Something that CHIRP listeners might appreciate is the Dataclysm breakdown of musical preferences in dating profiles by race. In a finding that will likely surprise no one, there apparently ain't a band that denotes "whiteness" more than Belle & Sebastian. Ha!]
In Hollywood, the notion of compatibility has historically been rather simple. How many times have we seen partners portrayed as being completely alike... or polar opposites? "Let's draw up a man and woman who have nothing in common, and watch the sparks fly when they meet!" Though I generally get the feeling that when film and television depict already-established couples, they're often more alike than not? Steven and Elyse Keaton of Family Ties. Claire and Cliff Huxtable of The Cosby Show (uh, too soon...?). Any of the mob wives on The Sopranos. (We would expect them all to be as shallow and materialistic as their criminal husbands, and we are not disappointed.)
In director Joe Swanberg's 2013 film Drinking Buddies, we follow a pair of seemingly disparate Chicago couples. Kate (Olivia Wilde) is a free spirit who's also the marketing arm of Revolution Brewing, and she's seeing Chris (Ron Livingston), an introspective bookworm and music producer. Meanwhile, Kate's co-worker, the gregarious Luke (Jake Johnson) is a toiler on the brewery floor who lives with Jill (Anna Kendrick), a sweet, well-manicured woman who enjoys fine arts in her spare time.
Kate and Luke are good friends, and early on, the pair and their respective others organize a weekend trip to a lake cottage. Naturally, Chris and Jill wind up hiking together and discussing literature, while Luke and Jill knock back beers at the homestead... and we can all see that the four of them are almost perfectly mismatched. Or are they? And here's where the film gets mighty interesting. One of the couples breaks up soon afterwards, which ratchets up the sexual tension between Kate and Luke -- both kindred souls, with one still attached and the other now on the prowl. Later on, they spend much of a weekend together during a move, and the aforementioned tension spills over into hurt and feelings that are laid bare.
What are we all looking for in relationships? Is it possible that someone who seems to be quite dissimilar from us can still serve as an important complement? Swanberg emerged a decade ago as one of the champions of the "mumblecore" film movement which strives for authenticity, and here, all four characters seem completely honest and real. The scuttlebutt is that, in Drinking Buddies, large sections of the dialogue between the characters were ad-libbed to create a natural tone; the actors were given plot points to hit, but few specific lines. (In fact, during one particular scene at a Revolution party, Anna Kendrick later remarked that she was drinking real beer and was thus quite tipsy on the set.)
Clarence, what did you think of the film and Swanberg's style? Did you sympathize with any of the characters in particular? Should we be ready to call Al-Anon on Kate and Luke, who probably drank more beer on camera than I do in a year? And what'd you think of that oh-so-sly move where Chris discreetly slips his card into a book he loans Jill while the others are around...? That might've been my favorite Small Moment in a film chock-full of them.
I tend to think that the idea of "opposites attracting" is far more suited to movies than TV. The short-term romantic sparks that come from that kind of friction are plausible for a two-hour story, but when you have to spend more time with characters, the dynamics move closer to what you'd find in real life. And I think you HAVE to have something, if not several things, in common in order to make a real-life relationship work.
Of course, I only have my personal experience to refer to on this matter. When I think of the people I know who have been in long-term relationships, all of them have something key in common, even if it’s something as random as a shared history as high school classmates. The couple I know whom I would describe as the most opposite in temperament and personality just finalized their divorce last year. Maybe it’s coincidence, but I still have yet to see two people who are true opposites in a permanent situation.
That’s what makes the dynamic between Kate and Luke so interesting. Those two are clearly on the same wavelength. Watching them joke around and flirt with each other, it’s also obvious they share a level of intimacy that goes beyond “just friends.” I kept wondering - why haven’t these two hooked up yet? It might be possible for someone to see too much of themselves in someone else. Could that be the case? What do you think?
Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson are pretty amazing together, BTW. I also liked Ron Livingston, whose work I’ve enjoyed over many years, as the “bad guy” of the story. It’s interesting how he was the one person in the group who was up front and honest about what he did and didn’t want to go after. How did his forwardness in pursuing Jill read to you, Kevin? Romantic? Scuzzy? Admirable? Just playing the game of love?
As far as the movie itself, Kevin, alas, if we were using the Siskel & Ebert system, I would have to give this movie just an ever-so-slightest thumbs up. The performances were very good across the board, and the movie was really nice to look at - the cinematography gave everything an optimistic glow.
The thing about improvised dialogue, though, is how it tends to reveal its own limitations in the pursuit of authenticity. For every moment of honesty and realness in the performances, there was another moment that was just “uhhh...okay” as the characters muddled through lines that did not add much to the story.
And when the improv isn’t working, it can be even more painful to listen to than a bad script. I think Judd Apatow, who hit a high point with The 40-Year-Old Virgin and has been generating diminishing returns ever since, is a good example of this.
If the goal is to tell a story within a certain structure, the artifice of a pre-written screenplay is just what you need. That’s what makes scribes like Billy Wilder, Charlie Kaufman, and Spike Jonze worth their weight in gold. Even if the dialogue is scripted, it can still be useful, even poetic, if it serves the story.
You are so right - My goodness, they drink a lot of beer! I suppose it’s a good thing they don’t work at a pizza parlor or donut shop…! I take it from your earlier comments that beer is not your spirit of choice. Do you have one? How much of it can you drink on a regular basis? And do you have any other favorite alcohol-themed movies?
I don't think that I've mentioned how I'm weirdly affected by food that I see consumed on screen. After Do The Right Thing, I was ravenous for pizza. Ditto with Pulp Fiction and those juicy Big Kahuna burgers. (Of course, the "Big Kahuna" chain never existed, but any burger would've sufficed.) The worst pangs were felt after the French film Blue is the Warmest Color, where the two leads munched through a parade of gyros, toasted ravioli, and noodles during the three-hour running time.
Interestingly, alcohol has the opposite effect. Deadwood had me sympathizing with the prospectors' poor kidneys -- did anyone in that town mix in a glass or two of water with their whiskey? And nothing put a grimace on my face like watching Roger Sterling of Mad Men down an AM vodka. So I can't say that I have any favorite "alcohol-themed movies," though I am a cocktail & wine guy in general. No beer, thanks... I'd much prefer bourbon.
Honestly, I would never have suspected that any of the scenes in Drinking Buddies were improvised if I hadn't read about them afterwards. Which sequences in particular didn't work for you?
I didn't really see Ron Livingston's Chris as a villain of the story? He does cross the line with Anna Kendrick's Jill during their hike together, and it would've been quite "scuzzy" if he kept pursuing her while still seeing Kate... but he does the right thing and ends their relationship immediately afterwards. And he also shows a mature restraint in not taking advantage of a drunk, lonely Kate when she stumbles over to his home a few days/weeks later. (I mean, c'mon, it's Olivia Wilde! That's some serious willpower at work.)
As for Kate and Luke, it's possible that there's a backstory between the two that the audience just isn't privy to? Maybe they did hook up at one point when they were unattached? Perhaps it didn't work out for whatever reason, and Luke has been having second thoughts? Especially since he works with Kate every day, and is quite aware that she provides a certain spark which Jill lacks.
You bring up an interesting point in terms of "seeing too much of yourself in someone else." I recently caught the documentary Three Identical Strangers, where three 18-year-old New Yorkers discovered that they were part of a triplet of brothers who had been separated at birth. At first, they were ecstatic at the discovery, but then matters took a dark turn in a big hurry. Afterwards, I wondered how I'd feel if I met two identical Kevins at this point in time, and that prospect filled me with... unease. I'm sure it's different for sibling pairs who've grown up together, but I'd feel like much less of a special snowflake with copies floating around, especially if the worst of your personal foibles were now made painfully evident. On the other hand, the potential for fantastic pranks on our friends and loved ones would skyrocket, as we would likely all have a mischievous streak...
[I'm also reminded of Enemy, a cool indie thriller directed by Denis Villeneuve, where Jake Gyllenhaal discovers that he has a doppelgänger. Mischief does not abound here. Just tension and dread.]
Did Drinking Buddies inspire you to reflect at all on your own relationships and the sorts of qualities you value in significant others? The fact that the film stuck with me long afterwards in this manner is one of the highest compliments I can bestow upon it. Whether or not the movie worked for you similarly, what other "relationship films" have prompted personal reflection? A few of mine: Linklater's Before trilogy, Peter and Vandy, and The One I Love.
I remember being especially affected by the Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel half-romance (500) Days of Summer. I thought they did a beautiful job in exploring the theme of what happens when you love someone who doesn't love you back. Oddly enough, I also think about the relationship between Holly Martins and Anna Schmidt in Carol Reed's The Third Man. By all Hollywood standards, those two should have ended up together, with Anna realizing what a fool she was to be so loyal to Orson Welles' Harry Lime. The movie's wordless last scene is fantastic in how it refuses to succumb to an industry's cheap and sentimental notions of what love is about.
You asked which specific parts of the movie didn't work for me. I think, as a whole, the movie held together well. There certainly weren't any inauthentic moments from the actors I can think of. The thing is, though, when your philosophy is to achieve dialogue that's as close and spontaneous to real life, not everything that's said is going to be noteworthy. Imagine if you overhead two people you don't know talking to each other for an extended time. There will be spots where neither person says anything interesting or even relevant. That's the general sense I got with Drinking Buddies.
I get that I'm writing this as a big fan of screenwriters like Tarantino, for whom every utterance is a piece of the plot puzzle or a flourish of clever wordsmithing. Years from now, as my ears continue to mature and appreciate different styles, I might feel differently.
I'm not sure how I would react to finding out I had a long-lost identical sibling. I think what I'd be most interested in is finding out what my doppelgänger does for a living, along with how he spends his leisure time. It would kind of be like having your own alternative time-line machine, no? You would get to see yourself in different circumstances, based on the results of different paths. And I wonder, if arranging a prank with my sibling, not only if someone could play me convincingly, but whether *I* could play someone else at this point in my life? The circumstances of the events that have made me and my tics and quirks are so specific, I suspect someone who knew me would be able to tell pretty quickly that something was up. But you're right, Kevin - it wouldn't NOT be fun to try it if given the chance...!
Did you see the movie? Want to add to the conversation? Leave a comment below!