We need to talk.
There’s a sound in a person's voice when they’re improvising. You hear it a lot in reality television when they explain a plan or sum up the situation. It’s a little higher pitch than usual, the pauses are awkward because they’re trying to fill the silence, and there’s a lot more agreement than you’ll ever find in real life. The biggest rule of improvisation is “Yes, and...” so that the scene stays alive. Drinking Buddies (2013), from director Joe Swanberg, is entirely improvised by the actors according to a plot outline. Although that makes Swanberg’s camera work doubly impressive, it does raise an interesting question about the importance and value of screenwriting against the ‘honesty’ of the moment investigated by actors. Ultimately, however, you (or I) have to assess the finished product and not the process. What movie did they make here? A pretty good one. But there was too much left un-unsaid.
Kate (Olivia Wilde) is the sales rep/publicity person at Revolutionary Brewery. Her best buddy Luke (Jake Johnson) is a brewer. They both drink copious amounts of beer and the occasional shot of hard liquor. Kate is currently with Chris (Ron Livingston) who is an agent or manager for musical acts and Luke is with Jill (Anna Kendrick) who teaches special ed and enjoys diorama. It’s perfectly clear within moments that the reverse would be a more natural pairing. The four go out to Chris’s family vacation spot near the beach. Chris takes a hike with Jill while Kate and Luke get wasted by the beach. When they get back, Chris dumps Kate and, as they say, the plot thickens.
What you lose in an improvisation is a uniform voice and message. Compare Drinking Buddies with Mike Leigh’s Another Year (2010) (which I saw recently). Both attempt to get at very realistic human dramas in unexceptional circumstances with the use of improvisation. The difference is that Leigh works with the actors before filming begins to create the relationship and scenes and then locks in the script. A similar process was used in Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise series. Swanberg takes the first draft or maybe it’s the second draft, but most importantly it isn’t a whole organic creation, it’s the aggregate of little organic creations. Could that work? Probably. Anything can work. But when you watch Another Year and how deep and serious each character gets in every look and gesture and compare it to Drinking Buddies, there are some clearly missed opportunities.
There’s a scene where Jill is going to Costa Rica--or is she?--and she drops a little line on Luke about getting married. The scene has about three or four emotional lines running through it introduced through the dialogue. Jill makes Luke jealous by telling him how Chris gave her a book in what sounded like a pre-arranged meeting. They’ve just had dinner with Kate. A few scenes ago, Jill talks to Luke about reopening their conversation about getting married with Luke clearly the one holding things back. When she tells him to think about wedding plans, everyone has to read that as a threat. If it isn’t a threat, if there isn’t some possible infidelity in the background, the writer would cut that line. If it is a threat, then Anna Kendrick (and Swanberg’s editing) has to build up that tension and communicate that the two understand each other. As it stands, the only person who doesn’t seem to know what’s going on in the scene is Jill. I suspect that’s a casualty of improvisation.
That said, Johnson and Wilde are very good together. Wilde, in particular, is doing the heaviest lifting in the film and doing it brilliantly. She has her character defined and dynamic. The characters drift for the first two thirds of the film, but after that, their direction is pretty clear. Swanberg is content with building up the tension between Kate and Luke through a repetition of close encounters. It happens so often that you wonder when they’re going to do something about it. The final roller coaster of emotions--which is well worth the wait--could have come about a half hour sooner and played out longer.
One last thing. Why is Johnson shaved in the cover and menu but never in the movie?
One other last thing. If Olivia Wilde asks you to go skinny dipping, I don’t care who you are, you go skinny dipping.
Blu-ray Bonus Features
Deleted scenes and outtakes (with optional commentary), interviews with Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick, and Ron Livingston, AXS TV: A Look at Drinking Buddies, All Things Drinking with Joe Swanberg, Drinking Made Easy (hosted by Zane Lamprey), Behind the Scenes at Revolutionary Brewery, and, finally, commentary with Swanberg and producers Andrea Roa and Alicia Van Couvering.
"Drinking Buddies" is on sale December 3, 2013 and is rated R. Comedy. Written and directed by Joe Swanberg. Starring Anna Kendrick, Jake Johnson, Olivia Wilde, Ron Livingston.