Joe Swanberg built his brand on the novelty of naked bodies doing unglamorous things like shaving pubic hair and masturbating in the shower. He's still making small-scale, experiential films, but in Drinking Buddies, his most polished film to date, his observational prowess has swerved away from shock value and sharpened considerably. Here, a side eye can speak volumes.
It has to, because Swanberg's continued over-reliance on his actors to improvise gives the film an "ah, um" verisimilitude but not a single memorable line of dialogue. What lingers, instead, is the body language, which is apropos: Swanberg's body of work is an ongoing study of the body.
Take Kate (Olivia Wilde, stretching her legs after so many mere eye-candy roles), the promotions manager for a Chicago craft brewery. She is thick as thieves with her coworker, Luke (Jake Johnson, who plays the likably neurotic Nick on Fox's New Girl). Kate is a hard-drinking, good-times gal quick to laugh, but watch closely: When Luke's girlfriend, Jill (Anna Kendrick), meets up with them at a bar after work, Kate smiles with her mouth but not her eyes. Later, Kate drunkenly bikes over to see her boyfriend, Chris (Ron Livingston). She dutifully asks him about his day, but her glassy look tells a different story; the coda comes with her quick exit post-sex.
The two couples go on a weekend retreat together and rejigger the equation. Jill, the youngest of the bunch and a special-ed teacher, goes hiking with Chris, in his 40s and kind of a wet noodle. Meanwhile, best pals Kate and Luke pound beer and play cards. There is a palpable sexual tension between both of these not-couples, but only one of them acts on the attraction. That encounter is followed by a lot more inaction, but keep watching those eyes, the nervous fidgets, and lean-ins that tread the line of what is acceptable behavior between men and women who swear they're just friends. The surface is placid, but the insides are roiling.
Much has been made of the fact that Swanberg has cast for the first time bona fide movie stars and not just his mumblecore pals. In fact, it's the making of the movie. If you're going to build an entire film on micro-expressions, then a certain innate magnetism is required. Swanberg gets it in spades from his top-shelf cast.