Drinking Buddies (2013)

★★★

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Drinking Buddies PosterDirector: Joe Swanberg

Release Date: August 23rd, 2013 (US limited); November 1st, 2013 (UK)

Genre: Drama; Romance

Starring: Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick

If I knew anything about alcohol, I’d compare Drinking Buddies to an ice cold brew: refreshing and momentarily absolving, but certainly nothing impactful in the long run. Guzzle too much and you’ll wake up with a dizzied demeanour, clutching at the faint straws of last night’s antics. You probably wouldn’t want to indulge these characters for too long either, else their credible charm will devolve into a more septic annoyance. Director Joe Swanberg finds an amiable balance though and subsequently delivers a film that is controlled despite its obvious air of improvisation. But much like that 11th beer, Drinking Buddies just doesn’t feel necessary. There is a gaping plot contrivance, one that’s really difficult to ignore.

As co-workers at a Chicago-based brewery, Kate (Olivia Wilde) and Luke (Jake Johnson) spend more time with each other than they do their respective partners. The duo even manage to squeeze evening bar gallivants alongside other staffers into their laid back schedules. A double date weekend away ushers in a few new home truths — at least one more than we’re already aware of — whilst also cementing the obvious, that these two should be a couple.

So why aren’t they? Drinking Buddies calmly shuffles along for 90 minutes and for at least 85 of those we ponder that exact sentiment. The notion promoting Kate and Luke as a terminally separate item is quite unbelievable, so much so that the amour scales eventually bowl over into absurdity. At its heart the film is a ‘will they, won’t they?’ story that seems destined for a conclusion within reach but beyond common sense. Kate and Luke are both drinkers, they’re both jokers, both laid back. The two even work at the same craft brewery. Better still, the duo’s respective partners are more suited to a relationship with each other as opposed to their current situation. Anna Kendrick is Jill, who likes to hike and muse over philosophical idioms. She’s not much of a bevy merchant. Inconspicuously, neither is Kate’s boyfriend Chris.

The plot, though straightforward and immersive enough, struggles to overcome the grandiose fabrication staring it right in the face. We spent far too much time frustrated, pleading with the characters to face the overt facts. Not frustrated in an enticing manner, rather, gratingly so. It is a shame because Swanberg — who also wrote, edited and co-produced — drives home a genuine sense of believability when it comes to his characters. We recognise the people and we like them, but their situation is borderline nonsense.

There is an impetus to improvise and, for the most part, a justifiable one. Although proceedings occasionally teeter down an overly spontaneous route where natural is irritatingly substituted in favour of awkward (a conversation during a mundane forest hike, for example) this mantra that puts the ball in the actors’ court is a welcome one. The indie tint is prevalent and actually very agreeable; visually, Drinking Buddies manifests as cosy if not at all flashy. Nor should it be flashy. The filmmaker squeezes a lot out of his $500,000 budget by tending towards simplicity, a decision that also coalesces neatly with Swanberg’s attempts to enforce purity.

Much of what is happening hinges on the talents of Drinking Buddies‘ cast and they universally deliver. Olivia Wilde leads as Kate, constantly dawning shades in order to convince us she is hungover. Kate could easily be unlikeable — she is sort of clingy and relentlessly fails to take control of situations — but Wilde’s effortless allure grants her unlimited lives. Stepping away from the wrestling ring for a moment, Jake Johnson turns up as the other half of the film’s dynamic duo, Luke. Johnson has a slightly easier job than Wilde but delivers wholesomely nonetheless; Jake is cool (he has a beard) and eternally collected. The flick is at its most mobile when these two share the screen, their chemistry constantly sizzling. Anna Kendrick is also thrown in at the deep end — Jill is the character who is sort of ruining what inevitably would be a picturesque relationship. Yet, we still get along with her. Kendrick’s stock is on a rapid ascent and it is clear why.

Simmering irrepressibly beneath the love quadrangle is alcoholism, a damning and serious issue. Though the tone fluctuates between frothy romance and light wit, the subject of alcoholism subconsciously rears every so often — it would, at the end of the day this is a piece about people working with drink and drinking after work — and Swanberg handles it well. He has to. Kate is definitely the serial gulp offender and it is consequently unsurprising that her personal life is the one falling apart. The director aptly manages said topic by raising awareness without stumbling into burdensome territory.

There is no avoiding the almost fatal error in Drinking Buddies’ narrative. The film’s strive to be authentic butts heads with its stubbornness when it comes to characters’ romantic tendencies. Put that to one side though, and Joe Swanberg’s light-hearted indierrific outing will certainly quench your thirst.

Drinking Buddies - Olivia Wilde & Jake Johnson

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Magnolia Pictures

Her (2014)

★★★

Director: Spike Jonze

Release Date: January 10th, 2014 (US); February 14th, 2014 (UK)

Genre: Drama; Romance; Science fiction

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Scarlett Johansson

The last time Joaquin Phoenix and Amy Adams acted side-by-side they were components of an enigmatic collective, including the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, in an enigmatic film, The Master. Perhaps Scarlett Johansson’s most well-regarded stint in-front of camera was as part of Lost in Translation, and there are echoes here of that wayward soul in a hasty world mantra. Surprisingly then — given Phoenix, Adams and Johansson’s presence — Her somewhat ambles along uncertainly. Unlike The Master, it never reaches the pinnacle of engrossment, and it doesn’t quite have that admirable ambience of Lost in Translation. There is something delicate and charming though, admittedly often deriving from the performances of our fair trio. Yet aside from its lively textures, there’s a lacking sharpness, a missing clarity. Sometimes it’s all in the name, and the world in which Theodore Twombly exists is all a bit, well, wibbly-twombly.

It’s 2025 and Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) splits his time between love letter composition for those unable to elaborate on their feelings, engaging in virtual gaming, and moping about his impending divorce. Given his own stuttering when it comes to expressing emotions, it’s miraculous that Theodore succeeds in his paraphrasing-mediation job. Inward and suitably unnoticeable among the masses of technology consumed beings, Theodore decides to invest in a brand new OS system, shortly thereafter named Samantha (Scarlett Johansson). At first he’s unsure, but still awkwardly encapsulated; by the impossibly sophisticated technology, the presence of something new in his life, and more than anything, Samantha’s sultry voice.

A voice that absolutely entices. Scarlett Johansson delivers a pitch perfect audio performance that rings both affectionate and strong-willed, increasingly growing in knowledge and pseudo-humanity. As viewers, we know of Johansson’s actual beauty and picture her as the OS system exhales airwaves, therefore it is easier to grasp on to her allure and, ultimately, understand why Theodore is becoming more and more infatuated with those wispy tones. Essentially, we see what he hears. On the empirical side of things, Joaquin Phoenix amiably bumbles as the lead. In reality Phoenix has a tough job, considering many of his conversations take place without the presence of another human being, and there’s no central location for him to direct speech towards. In evading this obstacle, Phoenix creates a flailing uncertainty that, even in direct conversation with another body, would probably still have him glancing from ceiling to floor. Theodore’s fidgety, glasses-adjusting unsettled social existence works well, in turn ensuring another successful acting outing for Phoenix.

Aptly, women are the order of the day in Her and another three effectively contribute, only in smaller doses. Olivia Wilde manifests as Theodore’s date, spiky in exterior yet personifying that lack of assurance that runs throughout the film. Soon-to-be ex-wife Catherine is played by Rooney Mara, appearing in a few montages and even fewer real-time scenes. Mara is fine, but doesn’t really see enough light of day to develop character-wise. Amy Adams gets a lot more screen time as Theodore’s childhood friend Amy and, much like her mate, is adoringly awkward. Which raises the first issue – the pair are so alike, seemingly very close and totally get on, so why are they not together? When we meet Theodore he is recently removed from a committed relationship, and Amy’s collapsing love life isn’t far behind. The premise obviously demands that there be an absorbing connection between its characters and their technologies, but the narrative still seems far-fetched in that neither Theodore nor Amy ever raise the issue of a potential relationship between the pair, which considering all the evidence, would be a flourishing escapade. Perhaps Amy’s human-on-human romance exfoliating with negativity subsequently forces Theodore’s mechanical-driven desire.

The insistence, then, on contemplating and evoking a social commentary on how civilisation is becoming enslaved by technology, starts edging towards overbearing status. Constantly, the screen cuts from unfolding events to convey the number of humans seen aimlessly wandering with an electronic voice in one ear. Yet a number of these techno-captives — not all — still convey surprise when Theodore details his rapport with an OS system (“You’re dating your computer?”). The notion is weird for the viewer, of course, but in the context of a future world driven by the machine, Theodore’s budding romance doesn’t really seem all that peculiar. To get around this, writer-director Spike Jonze delves further into the land of philosophical thought, encountering Samantha as she raises her own moral dichotomy. “Are these feelings real, or are they just programming?” she wonders worriedly. Is she even a she? Instead of Her, would Thing be a more suitable title? For a while, this dilemma sort of works as it becomes more about the creation of a new, potentially dominant artificial intelligence, rather than a human-computer relationship. Inevitably though, it wears.

Once Jonze gets past the schmaltz and hit-or-miss musings (“The past is just a story we tell ourselves” — guess I don’t need to return that television I stole yesterday then) and focuses on purely simplicity, Her really hits its stride. When Theodore and Samantha are having banterous, funny conversations, that’s when the film oozes charm and good-natured infectiousness. Moments of energy reign supreme over soliloquies of sad reflection. The film is encased in vibrancy, a future world that somehow gleams with a retro feel, almost as if we’ve returned to the inception of computers rather than their sovereignty. Theodore’s moustache is as welcome as his bright orange shirt and the multicoloured glass windows his office. This glossy texture, coupled with a hypnotic soundtrack not dissimilar to that of Lost in Translation, aids in capturing a setting that you wouldn’t mind spending hours encapsulated in.

Strong performances provide Spike Jonze’s Her with a required dose of oomph, as often the director’s relentless societal ponderings become too much or increasingly repetitive. Having said that, the film is entirely watchable and probably just as rewatchable, given its wonderful cinematography and generous atmosphere. Despite a few significant misgivings, Her is actually pretty good fun.