Even though I'd only seen three of the seemingly dozens of features Joe Swanberg has made since 2005, I think I had a pretty good handle on his work going into Drinking Buddies, which I guess you could call his "mainstream" debut. The most striking thing about Drinking Buddies, though, is that despite the presence of famous people in the lead roles (it stars Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick and Ron Livingston), it's pretty much indistinguishable from Swanberg's previous work in all other ways. Once again, he's the writer, director and editor (and he makes a brief cameo), once again the story is about rootless twentysomethings in troubled relationships, once again the dialogue and story structure is developed through improvisation, and once again the movie has a sort of awkward, slapdash charm and looks like it was shot over a weekend in locations that Swanberg's friends happened to have access to.
That last part is almost certainly not true, but Swanberg has done a remarkable job of retaining his low-fi aesthetic while working with well-known stars. It's a mixed blessing, since part of the reason for his aesthetic are the limitations on his budget and exposure, which aren't as much of a factor here. Certainly with the bigger names, Swanberg had access to more money and a more prominent platform (Magnolia Pictures released this movie, while some of Swanberg's past features have barely made it beyond the festival circuit). Yet he sticks with the cheap, grubby look, which is sort of admirable, although also sort of frustrating.
As for the movie itself, it's typically low-key and mostly pleasant to watch, and it has a bit more structure to it than some of Swanberg's other movies (which sometimes come off like he just shot a bunch of footage, stopped when he ran out of ideas and/or money, and then threw it all together). In the lead role, Wilde gets a chance to show off a range outside of her typical girlfriend-accessory roles, and she seems to fit well with Swanberg's unstructured style. She and Johnson have strong chemistry, and while the tension in their relationship builds to a sort of dissatisfying anticlimax, that's true of many ambiguous relationships in real life, too. I don't know that Swanberg gets anything artistically out of having a more recognizable cast, but it at least gives him the opportunity to bring his signature halting, amusingly jumbled insights to a wider audience. Available on DVD today.