Strange how people can become famous for movies that don't show half of what they can do. And then they make something like "Drinking Buddies" that reveals their full talent, charm and ability, but few people ever see it.
For example, Olivia Wilde. It would be wrong to say that in most of her mainstream movies she has been merely decorative -- she has been better than that, even in decorative roles, thanks to a watchful intelligence that always suggests something more going on. But she has never had the chance to create as rich a character as in "Drinking Buddies" -- fun-loving, troubled, hardworking, smart and a bit of a slob.
Or Anna Kendrick. She had a nice opportunity in "Up in the Air" and was nominated for an Oscar, and yet she is much more interesting in "Drinking Buddies," much more open and natural and yet always conveying her shifting thoughts and rich internal life.
This is a special movie. For almost 20 minutes, "Drinking Buddies" does almost nothing to indicate where the story is going or whether there is even going to be a story. And yet everything onscreen is interesting, because of the truth of the emotion and the specificity of detail. It feels like eavesdropping, watching Kate (Wilde) go about her day as the office manager of a brewery. Almost every night, after work, she has a few beers with the guys, among them Luke (Jake Johnson), who is just as likable and outgoing as she is.
Early in the movie, Kate and her boyfriend (Ron Livingston) and Luke and his girlfriend (Anna Kendrick) go away for a weekend in the country, and we get to see the dynamics of the two relationships. In each, there is a fun person and a serious person, a lazy person and an industrious person, a night owl and a morning person. And we wonder, but in a vague way, who should be with whom. Should like be with like, or do people need to be with someone who completes them?
But no. To state this as an outright question doesn't do justice to the subtleties and reverberations of "Drinking Buddies," whose scope goes beyond a simple thesis and whose concern is very much wrapped up in these characters, not as emblems, but as individuals. And these individuals are enormously appealing. As played by Johnson, Luke is a great guy, someone the audience wants to be around just as much as the other characters do.
Director Joe Swanberg uses long takes and allows the actors to improvise, and the results aren't awkward, as sometimes happens, but natural and revealing. The directorial hand is subtle. At one point, Chris (Livingston) says something ever-so-slightly flirtatious to Jill (Kendrick), and her eyes widen just a fraction. In another scene, Luke kisses Kate on the forehead, and her expression is as rich as life and too complicated for words.
Here's a thought: It's just possible that 100 years from now, the only movies from our era that anybody is going to want to watch are mumblecore movies like "Drinking Buddies." Obviously, except as predictors of future disasters, our blockbusters will hold no interest for the future -- future movies will have their own special effects, and better than ours. All the future wants to know from the past is, what was it like? And while other kinds of movies reveal that, too, a movie like "Drinking Buddies" is about that and nothing else: What it feels/felt like to be a feeling person in 2013.
See it now for a preview of how they'll be talking about us.