Drinking Buddies: SXSW Review

An appealing cast and fine-tuned sexual tension bolster Swanberg's latest.

The prolific Joe Swanberg escapes the mumblecore ghetto with a sexy relationship comedy starring Olivia Wilde.

AUSTIN — Putting Joe Swanberg's improvisational methods to good use in a film that should substantially expand the filmmaker's audience, Drinking Buddies mines workplace attraction for more than the usual chuckles and benefits from casting that reaches far outside the mumblecore gene pool. Those actors are rewarded with a film letting them do more than they have in the past -- especially in the case of Olivia Wilde, who steps out of the generic-love-interest slot into a leading role.

Shot by Ben Richardson (Beasts of the Southern Wild), the picture is also more visually appealing than we're accustomed to with Swanberg, even if it generally forsakes local color (the story's set in Chicago) for the stainless-steel interiors of a craft brewery. (Small-batch beer, in fact, is a character here in the same way cities are in other films -- it colors most scenes, not in a drunken frat-party way, but supplying an evolving texture to often emotionally-loaded conversations.) This is where Wilde's Kate, the company's marketing director, works in close contact with brewer Luke (Jake Johnson), whose big brother-style teasing appears to be laced with an undercurrent of attraction.

But Luke has a near-fiancee at home (Anna Kendrick's Jill) and, though Kate's restless glances seem to size up most of her male coworkers, she's in a relationship with the older, more successful Chris (Ron Livingston). After mingling at a company party, the two couples take an overnight trip together to Chris's lakeside cabin.

The flirting we've witnessed before this slumber party primes us for one thing, but Swanberg gives us something slightly more complicated. He does so in scenes whose spontaneous-feeling dialogue is sprinkled with awkward silence and flubbed responses -- the conversational-observation stuff Swanberg and his peers have been mining for a few years, here edited beautifully and making the most of comic discomfort.

Each member of the central quartet impresses here (as does Jason Sudeikis, uncredited in a small role as the brewery's owner), but Jake Johnson is particularly charismatic as a man whose easygoing affection for and protectiveness of his coworker may or may not be sublimated lust. If Wilde is the first act's protagonist, the last half belongs to Johnson, whose character may not even realize how hard he's struggling to behave decently.

Production Company: Burn Later Productions

Cast: Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick, Ron Livingston, Ti West, Frank V. Ross, Mike Brune, Joe Swanberg

Director-Screenwriter-Editor: Joe Swanberg

Producers:  Alicia Van Couvering, Andrea Roa, Joe Swanberg,  Paul Bernon, Sam Slater

Executive producers: Mike Witherill, David Kaplan

Director of photography: Ben Richardson

Production designer: Brandon Tonner-Connolly

Costume designer: Amanda Ford

Sales: CAA

No rating, 90 minutes