Joe Swanberg's career as a filmmaker has gone through several phases, all without his name being known to more than a tiny fraction of the movie-going public. The inadvertent and unwilling godfather of the "Mumblecore" sub-genre (in which listless twentysomethings ruminate on their mundane lives in snarky, semi-improvised dialogue), Swanberg was a perfect fit for the Austin-based SXSW Film Festival, where his first four movies premiered, one after another, four years in a row (2005-2008). But Swanberg's prolificness -- he made six films in 2011 alone -- worked against him, especially since they tended to be short, cheap-looking, and derivative projects. The indie community, weary of what seemed to be a quantity-over-quality mentality, turned against him.
This culminated in an event at last year's Fantastic Fest (another Austin film festival), where Swanberg and one of his chief detractors, critic Devin Faraci, had a debate and then stepped into a boxing ring to settle their differences the old-fashioned way. Swanberg cleaned Faraci's clock -- perhaps foreshadowing the filmmaker's imminent resurgence (or maybe just the result of the filmmaker being in far better physical condition than the writer).
I mention all of this background because I think Swanberg has turned a corner. His latest film, Drinking Buddies -- his 14th feature in eight years -- is more polished and well-acted than anything he's made before, with nuanced comic performances by likable stars and a point of view that's mature, funny, and thoughtful. Swanberg and his usual accomplices have only minor onscreen roles, and the drab, do-it-yourself aesthetics are gone, too, as Swanberg has hired a cinematographer this time (Ben Richardson, who shot Beasts of the Southern Wild). Not to dismiss Swanberg's previous work, much of which was very good, but Drinking Buddies seems like a "real" movie.
The title characters are Kate (Olivia Wilde) and Luke (Jake Johnson), employees at a small Chicago-area brewery whose relationship is playful but strictly platonic. Each is in a relationship already: Luke has been with Jill (Anna Kendrick) long enough that they're starting to discuss marriage, while Kate has been with Chris (Ron Livingston), a music producer, for several months and still doesn't like to sleep over at his place. The two couples socialize freely and without jealousy, even taking a weekend trip to a lakeside cabin together.
Things get complicated when Chris and Kate's relationship ends and she starts rebounding. Daily life at the brewery is relaxed and often involves drinking, and she gets cozy -- perhaps unwisely so -- with another coworker. Luke doesn't approve. Meanwhile, he's unsure about his future with Jill, who it must be noted is perfectly delightful and seemingly a great match for him.
Jake Johnson, from TV's New Girl and last year's Safety Not Guaranteed, is on a hot streak right now, and those who have seen his work won't be surprised by his deftly funny turn here. (As it happens, he has a facility for light drama, too.) The real discovery is Olivia Wilde, who hasn't had much opportunity to do comedy until now but delivers an impressive performance in a tricky role. Kate has to be blithe and moderately immature, "one of the guys" but still feminine, and a little reckless without being off-putting. Wilde handles it with aplomb, earning laughs and compassion in equal measure.
The entire cast (which also includes Ti West and Jason Sudeikis) has an easy rapport that gives the movie a lived-in feel. Swanberg has always excelled at creating that sort of atmosphere, and it's an encouraging sign that he didn't lose the knack when he made a "bigger" film. Despite the higher budget and more famous cast, Drinking Buddies has the intimacy and warmth that made those early Mumblecore films so appealing, and Swanberg shows real insight in the way he examines the ever-shifting line between collegial friendliness and actual flirtation. If this is the future of independent romantic comedies, sign me up.