In some ways, director Joe Swanberg has stepped up his movie making game with Drinking Buddies, a new romantic comedy about love and beer opening this weekend.
He cast established stars from American independent film (Olivia Wilde, Anna Kendrick, Ron Livingston) and television (Jake Johnson of New Girl). He even got studio money and decent distribution for the flick.
But in many ways, the film is all about Swanberg staying true to the form he’s evolved over more than a dozen feature films.
Swanberg’s way is actually something of a trend this summer: Drinking Buddies is one of a spate of small, character-driven films (Fruitvale Station, The Spectacular Now) stealing at least the critical, if not the commercial, limelight from the usual blockbuster flicks.
The film’s an ode to Chicago’s craft beer scene, wrapped up in a couple of interconnecting love stories. Two friends (Wilde, Johnson) make and drink beer together. Each is in a relationship, one new, one long-standing. Much of the film is a meditation on the nature of love and friendship, why we like some people and love others, and what happens when we start to confuse one state of attraction for the other.
Lovers and friends do tangle, but dramatic scenes are mostly absent. Instead, relationships are revealed over small mundane acts: eating lunch together at work, sharing a picnic at the beach, packing a suitcase for a trip, and just generally hanging out.
It is the quality and the intensity of those hangs, like recurring loops in a chain of community, that for me makes Drinking Buddies such a Chicago film. The where is critical too: Swanberg uses many Chicago locations, but he doesn’t make them over or change their names. Characters both play and say they’re playing pool at the Empty Bottle, and drink beers at Revolution Brewery’s tasting room. He also immersed his actors in Chicago's craft beer scene. He made beer with them at his house, had them drink real beer throughout the film, took them on tours of breweries like Three Floyds in Indiana and had them coached by local brewers (Kate Thomas of Half Acre Beer Company is the film's official "beer consultant").
Swanberg says his need to keep the real “real” can be chalked up to the “aesthetic and mindset” he developed studying filmmaking at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, which has a long tradition of documentary.
“I think specificity always ends up being more than a half-hearted attempt at universality,” said Swanberg, “So even if you’ve never been to Chicago or the Empty Bottle before, all those little bits of specificity over the course of a whole film really add a richness that people can feel even if it’s not their city or their subculture.”
Swanberg thinks that approach pays off with his characters as well. Rather than using archetypes of the jock or pretty girl, as in The Breakfast Club (which Swanberg calls a “great” film) he goes for characters who act like “real people.”
“Somehow that will make them more relatable,” said Swanberg, “Because they’ll maybe do one thing or two things in the movie that somebody is like ‘Oh, I actually do that. I’ve been in that argument before.”
The world of Drinking Buddies does feel lived in - or like one you might want to live in. And mainly Swanberg and the actors avoid the formulaic aspects of the rom-com which has proven a particularly deadly trap for female actors (see Jennifer Aniston or Jennifer Lopez or Katherine Heigl, which I talk about in more detail here).
Swanberg has a proven eye for actors - he was early to the talents of Greta Gerwig (Frances Ha), who lights up his 2008 film Nights and Weekends. He makes similarly good choices in Drinking Buddies. As Luke, Johnson looks straight out of central casting, in his depiction of a largely happy-go-lucky brewer, who values equally the foibles and strengths of his partner Jill (Kendrick). Given more emotional and physical space to play with that in previous roles, Olivia Wilde shines as Kate.
One detail did nag at me. Johnson’s character sports a tattoo that telegraphs Chicago pride, big time: a facsimile of the city’s flag which wraps around one of his arms. It’s obviously fake, in fact most of the time, it looks just a tiny bit smudged. When I mentioned it, Swanberg suggested that’s because I’m a “specific” movie watcher.
To me it wasn’t just a detail out of place, but signalled a small failing of the film. As much as I wanted to like these characters, I never felt like I was totally in their headspace. Some of that can be attributed to their low-key natures. But in all his films, Swanberg has never seemed satisfied with just capturing a scene, but trying to break it open, to reveal somewhere or something new. And that’s the step Swanberg, despite his incredible talent, needs to take next: To deepen his characters, such that they don’t rely on props like fake tattoos or even real mugs of dark beer, to make their points.
Drinking Buddies opens in Chicago and New York Friday, and across the country August 30th. For more from Joe Swanberg, check out WBEZ’s podcast Strange Brews.