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Arts and Entertainment

No Beer Goggles Needed: Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson Are 'Drinking Buddies'

Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson star in 'Drinking Buddies.' (Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.)
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The premise of the drama-comedy Drinking Buddies seems simple: Will two co-workers Kate (Olivia Wilde) and Luke (Jake Johnson) cheat on or ditch their respective significant others Chris (Ron Livingston) and Jill (Anna Kendrick)? Writer-director Joe Swanberg’s (Hannah Takes the Stairs, V/H/S) latest feature shows that sometimes, like in real life, the answer is...complicated.

We first meet the two “buddies” at the craft brewery where they both work. Kate, a tomboy, is everyone’s bff in this male-dominated environment. She’s one of the guys—except that she looks so much better in jeans and Chuck Taylors. Luke's a cross between her work husband and an older brother looking out for Kate, making sure that the guys at the brewery don’t get too close.

Kate and Luke seem to be testing the waters: They tease each other. They flirt. They lunch. They hit up bars after work with the gang, where they drink. A lot. (We’re pretty sure that “beer pint” could have top billing in this film.) But they also seem happy in their relationships. Luke’s long-time girlfriend Jill is a level-headed and sweet teacher who’s lightly pressuring Luke to talk about marriage. Kate is involved with the worldly older guy Chris. (And we know he’s worldly because he’s an avid reader who’d rather play vinyl at home while sipping scotch, not beer.)

The four go away for a weekend, giving the couples a chance to explore the dynamics of their relationships. Not wanting to give too much away, it’s during this trip that Swanberg manages to surprise us with a little twist into the movie’s loose plot. Relationships are tested even further when Kate and Luke are left alone another weekend—when things become clear-cut for the two.

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Swanberg, thankfully, steers Drinking Buddies away from typical Jennifer Aniston/Katherine Heigel rom-com fare, which this film could easily have become. If anything, it’s more sobering than funny, with Wilde and Johnson creating complex characters that keep us guessing as to what they really want out of their relationship(s). Wilde’s performance slowly reveals Kate’s immaturity throughout the film. And Johnson, whom we love in New Girl, plays Luke as a decent guy who struggles with a quandary a lot of people face—crossing the line from drinking buddy to another type of buddy (rhymes with “luck”).

Unfortunately, the supporting players had less to work with. While Kendrick was terrific as likeable Jill, she wasn’t a character that had a lot of depth or passion. And Livingston, with that Droopy Dog visage of his, played his usual low-key onscreen persona. Jason Sudeikis, Wilde’s real-life fiance, also had an uncredited small role as Kate and Luke’s boss at the brewery. With his up-to-no-good grin, Sudeikis oozes funny and steals the few scenes he's in.

While Swanberg’s film did manage to surprise us a few times, those surprises came few and far between. We also think that it's misleading to characterize Drinking Buddies as a straight-up comedy—there were few belly laughs. The true-life problems would fall better under the drama genre. And at times, the story plodded along as Swanberg took his time in a character study of the two leads. If it weren’t for the onscreen chemistry and natural banter between Wilde and Johnson, leading us along that grey area between platonic friendship and “something more,” then Drinking Buddies could have been a total buzzkill.

Drinking Buddies is available on iTunes and On Demand now. It opens in New York on Friday and in LA on Aug. 30.