Can two people be each other’s soulmates and worst-case scenarios at the same time? For the first half hour or so, “Drinking Buddies,” the new film from the prolific indie writer-director Joe Swanberg (“Hannah Takes the Stairs”), looks like it’s traveling in the well-worn ruts of romantic comedy, “When Harry Met Sally. . .” division. Two witty, attractive young leads snipe at each other mischievously and in perfect synch, their friendship an obvious cover for their chemistry. They’re involved in outside romances but we know, even if they don’t, that they’re made for each other. So how long before the inevitable happens?
Swanberg, bless his perverse heart, is more interested in the evitable. A graduate of the Mumblecore school of filmmaking and an astute student of human nature, he points “Drinking Buddies” in directions that defy our expectations and explore, instead, the entropy of human interaction. Which is to say that if you come to the movie expecting the sassy rom-com it’s being sold as, you’ll be disappointed, maybe even angry. I had to see it twice to realize how good it is.
The setting is a Chicago-area microbrewery: Kate (Olivia Wilde) is the office manager and Luke (Jake Johnson of TV’s “New Girl” under a scraggly beard and trucker’s cap) is one of the vat-meisters. (An unbilled Jason Sudeikis of “SNL” appears in the small role of the brewery’s scatterbrained owner.) They’re dutifully otherwise engaged — Luke with Jill (Anna Kendrick), an intense young teacher, and Kate with the older, uptight Chris (Ron Livingston), but they only seem to snap to life when they’re together, sitting side-by-side in the lunchroom or at after-hours pub sessions with their co-workers.
One of the great, lasting pleasures of movies is banter: the sound of two people talking with all the timing and cleverness we lack in real life. From Nick and Nora Charles on, movie banter functions as both verbal fencing and sublimated sex, and Kate and Luke are experts in a rumpled, playful modern form of the art. The delight they take in delighting each other is infectious, to them and to us, and it takes a while before we realize they’d be a disaster as a couple.
For one thing, there are the beers the two are seen sipping in every single scene, at lunch, in the evening, eventually as morning chasers. “Drinking Buddies” isn’t anything like a 12-step drama, but it does allow us to quietly note what the characters don’t — that they’re functional alcoholics. Drinking gives their immaturity a lovely golden glow, one that becomes increasingly untenable as the movie progresses and Kate and Luke find themselves confronting what happens when banter stops.
Of the two, Luke is the marginal grown-up; at least he’s having wedding discussions with Jill and he feels protective — for reasons selfless and otherwise — when Kate gets dumped by Chris and dives into rebound sex with a doltish co-worker (Ti West). In “New Girl” and movies like “Safety Not Guaranteed,” Johnson excels at finding the tension between the nice guy and the cad; here, the drama is whether Luke is acting out of honor or self-preservation.
Because, frankly, Kate is a user, and “Drinking Buddies” is most interesting as a genre change-up in which we slowly realize the plucky Meg Ryan-esque heroine is her own worst enemy. Swanberg knows we’ll be initially seduced by Wilde’s movie-star prettiness — it’s almost too much to ask us to accept this elegant creature as a mere office manager — and the actress herself gradually and expertly reveals the pettiness of a woman used to coasting on her looks. Late in the film, we get a glance at Kate’s apartment and it’s like suddenly peering inside the character’s head: a pigsty that shocks both Luke and us.
“Drinking Buddies” is further evidence that Wilde has more depth and ambition than mainstream Hollywood can currently handle, and it marks Swanberg as one of the subtler talents of his generation — a deceptively casual moralist whose films observe their characters without judging them yet whose conclusions are unmistakable. “Drinking Buddies” rambles along in the accepted indie-film manner: The alt-rock soundtrack is impeccable and the dialogue bristles with glib, shaggy chatter that says everything about what the characters can’t bring themselves to say. If Eric Rohmer made a Mumblecore movie, it might look something like this.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.