You meet someone. You like the cut of their jib. The way their baby-soft hair lies, their incandescent smile, the way they make you laugh so hard your lungs hurt. The problem? You have a significant other. The second problem? You have a good relationship with said significant other. So what do you do? Probably develop a borderline inappropriate friendship with appealing jib and try to suppress fantasies about a romantic entanglement with them.
This is the premise of Joe Swanberg’s new “mumblecore” film Drinking Buddies. The film is true-to-life, accurately depicting a dilemma many monogamous couples face at some point in their relationship.
Luke (Jake Johnson, of New Girl fame) works alongside Kate (Olivia Wilde—Thirteen of House) at a microbrewery. The two have obvious chemistry; can banter with the best of them; share a laid-back, fun-loving disposition; and easily make one another laugh. It’s electric, and you spend the movie waiting for their inevitable union.
Yet, Luke is entangled in a five-year-long relationship with Jill (played by one Miss Anna Kendrick). Luke and Jill also get along well and seem to genuinely enjoy one another’s company. Yet the chemistry isn’t nearly as electrifying as Luke’s with Kate. Although the two intend to get married, they are not actually engaged; rather, they have plans to eventually get engaged—something Luke is not yet ready to do.
As the movie progresses, Luke and Kate’s friendship grows more intimate and we wonder if Luke’s relationship with Jill is doomed. And we wonder if it should be doomed. We wonder if it’s an impediment to Luke uniting with his true soul mate.
The genius of the film (SPOILER ALERT) is that Kate and Luke don’t end up together. They don’t even kiss. And it’s incredibly heartening.
The thing is, being in a relationship doesn’t mean we stop being attracted to other people. We inevitably meet many people throughout our lives with whom we have chemistry and could even develop a healthy relationship. But, if we’re going to follow the monogamous path, we can’t be with all of them. We have to choose who we want to commit ourselves to.
Of course, choosing who we will commit ourselves to can be difficult; developing a crush on someone else compounds that difficulty. You might wonder what being with that person would be like. Would they be better in bed? More fun and exciting? All around a better partner?
But, as you fantasize about this person who’s not your significant other, the thing to remember is that it’s only a fantasy. The good qualities radiating from new crushes and even new friends tend to be amplified. Their wit or generosity feels novel, and you have not yet seen their less attractive qualities in full force. However, once you get a glimpse of the unsightly baggage they carry, they’ll likely tumble off the pedestal you’ve placed them on. You’ll feel a rush of appreciation for your partner, and wonder how you could’ve imagined being with anyone else.
And that’s what happens in Drinking Buddies. Not long after Luke and Kate become the most intimate they’ve ever been, they come crashing down from that perfection. The degeneration begins when Luke agrees to help Kate move and a rusty nail embedded in her couch gashes his hand open. Despite the blood profusely gushing from his hand, she shows little concern; rather, she expresses annoyance and disgust, gagging at the sight of his bloodied hand. Tensions continue to rise throughout the day, culminating in a screaming match after Kate blows off their dinner plans to hang out with some drinking buddies from work. At the end of it, Luke sees Kate in a new light—unreliable, unappreciative, and incapable of helping him when he needs it most.
Everyone has flaws. But we all have different levels of tolerance for specific kinds of flaws. Kate’s issues, once exposed, were not the kind Luke wanted to deal with on a day-to-day basis for the rest of his life. He wants someone who is dependable, kind, and caring—that’s Jill, not Kate. Luke realizes Jill is the person he wants to commit to. Because for all the sexy, adventurous women out there, Jill is someone he can care about forever.
On the Slate Culture Gabfest, Slate’s film critic Dana Stevens said she hopes Drinking Buddies is not the future of romantic comedy. Yet, the style and plotting of Drinking Buddies seem like a fine way for the Rom Com to go, given how realistic and relatable the film is. The current formula of the Rom Com tends to create an unrealistic depiction of what love is, a depiction that tends to muddy our own expectations for relationships.
If Drinking Buddies followed the traditional formula, Luke and Kate wouldn’t have had a blow out. Luke would’ve broken up with Jill and the final shot would zoom in on Luke and Kate entangled in one another’s arms, united at last. The implication then becomes that love is all about that initial rush you experience when you first develop feelings for someone. But it’s not. That’s not even love. That’s infatuation. And it’s refreshing when a movie actually acknowledges the distinction between the two.