Luke (Jake Johnson) and Kate (Olivia Wild) are best friends, as well as co-workers at a brewery: They eat lunch together, verbally spar, and -- this is their line of work, of course -- drink together (hence the title, "Drinking Buddies"). All in all, they really seem to dig each other. So why don’t they sleep together?
It’s not that Kate isn’t into guys: She may be athletic and possess a certain bravado, not to mention a juvenile stripe of antic fun, all of which allows her to interact with her male co-workers as another one of the guys rather than a token (or harassed) lone female, but she’s still got a healthy and heterosexual libido.
And you’d think that Luke would do everything in his power to take their friendship to the next level because -- well, let’s just say it: No heterosexual guy is going to complain about having a girlfriend who doesn’t blame him for being male, if for no other reason than that she embodies all the male proclivities that most women complain about. So he smears his sandwich on your face and laughs? So what? You smear him back: It’s all a fine old time.
But there is a reason why the two don’t connect on the sexual level. Two, actually: Kate’s boyfriend, Chris (Ron Livingston), and Luke’s live-in girlfriend, Jill (Anna Kendrick). When the four spend a weekend out in the woods, it’s no surprise that the fussy neatnicks, Chris and Jill, end up taking a hike, picnic lunch and all, into the forest. Neither is it a shock when they share a kiss.
Luke and Kate, being less organized and lazier, scarcely stir from the cabin, and when they do it’s to go skinny-dipping. Actually, it’s Kate who throws off her clothes and dives in; Luke hangs back, less from a sense of modesty, one suspects, than because he’s not entirely sure he trusts himself to get naked with Kate and not do something they both might regret...or, more scary, might not regret.
That balance of guilt and liberation is the crux around which the movie turns. Implicit as it is between Luke and Kate, it’s quite explicit in the fallout from that kiss in the woods between Jill and Chris. No sooner does the weekend reach a conclusion than so does the relationship between Chris and Kate; declaring herself single and loving it, Kate makes her mind up to celebrate, and she takes another male co-worker (not Luke) home to bed. Luke sees it coming: His anxiety, desire, and jealousy positively radiate off him, and you can feel his sexual frustration pouring out of the screen.
Jill, for her part, tries to stuff her guilt down and forget that ill-considered lip lock by distracting herself with a trip abroad in the company of some female friends. This leaves Luke free to help Kate, who has decided to move house; the weekend they spend is marked outwardly by such ordinary highs and lows as cleaning and packing, a hand mauled by a nail, and an innocent sleepover in which they share a couch. Inwardly, though, the two bounce through a spectrum of emotional states that add more and more momentum to the vibrations between them: They’re headed for either a fiery showdown, or the hookup of the century.
Kendrick and Livingston fill out the movie’s edges nicely, but it’s up to Wilde and Johnson to carry the film and fill in the shades and nuances of its canvas. This, they do, under writer-director Joe Swanberg’s meticulous eye. Swanberg’s script allows their relationship to develop in something that feels like real time, which his camera captures the slow steps -- tentative on his part, reluctant on hers -- of their mating dance, and the degrees by which their feelings heat up.
The film is billed as a comedy, but it feels more like a drama with comic notes. In some respects, it feels like a contemporary American twist on the British kitchen sink drama; ordinary life is the subject here, and that in itself is sometimes more drama than real people can handle. It’s that sense of abiding in the realm of the realistic that makes this film approachable, relatable, and likable.