Joe Swanberg seems to have been around forever, even though he’s only in his early thirties – he started young and then worked real fast (fifteen movies as a director already, often acting in them too), like Rainer Werner Fassbinder with lighter hang-ups and, well, he’s actually not like Fassbinder at all, beyond the merely statistical comparison. If you see him mentioned, it’s inevitably in connection with the “mumblecore” movement – or maybe not so much a movement as a slouch – marked by low budgets, modest production values and an improvised feel, focusing on the relationships of the young, educated and largely ordinary. You might also see him mentioned as an early collaborator of Greta Gerwig, who spectacularly broke out to bigger things.
I’ve never gone looking for his films, but I’ve seen a few of them on channels like IFC and Sundance, where they presumably provide low-cost late-night programming. Autoerotic, a compilation of sex-related anecdotes, has a modest diversity and weirdness about it, but gets tired awfully quickly, even though it only lasts 72 minutes (Swanberg’s movies are always very short, which in his case tends to feel more like a limitation than a mark of discipline or focus). Nights and Weekends, with Gerwig, is a good example both of how Swanberg naturally achieves a realistic contour, and of how little that amounts to in the absence of higher artistic powers. Alexander the Last illustrates his more experimental side – built around the rehearsal for a play, it toys with our understanding of the narrative, but without the rigour or panache that might make such confusions worthwhile. It’s been unclear in all this whether Swanberg genuinely likes working fast and small and quick, or whether he hasn’t figured out how to slow down for long enough to do it any other way. I don’t mean all of that to sound as dismissive as it does – he deserves great admiration for carving out his own space and for building up such a body of work: it’s just that, like your neighbour’s new decorating job, you can admire it while still wondering why he invited you around to see it.
His new film Drinking Buddies (now available on-demand as well as playing, as I write, at the Carlton) is a partial step forward, in that it has a bigger budget and recognizable Hollywood actors, drawing from them a newly professional sheen. Kate (Olivia Wilde) and Luke (Jake Johnson) both work at a Chicago craft brewery, getting along exceptionally well and often meeting up afterwards to consume large amounts of the company’s product (Drinking Buddies may contain more beer consumption than any movie this side of a frat house comedy). The relationship expands to include a weekend-long double date with their respective partners (Ron Livingston and Anna Kendrick), during which it starts to seem plausible that everyone might be happier with a partner swap, but it doesn’t quite work out that way.
The film showcases Swanberg’s pleasure in conversation as a game, played fast and loose and ironic; the better you play, the sexier you are (and one feels, in some vague way, the more worthy). The emphasis on a group’s internal rhythms and implied rules puts Swanberg in a line stretching back to Howard Hawks, although it’s an instructive comparison: in Hawks’ case, mastering the group banter also demands absorbing and enacting its underlying ethics, whereas in Swanberg’s case it’s pretty much an end to itself, a way to fill up the otherwise potentially dead zones of existence. In this regard the movie has an interestingly idealized portrayal of the work environment: minor annoyances aside, it seems not so much a job as a way of life, in which professional and personal lives easily blend into one another. It doesn’t seem possible any of them are making that much money there, but this isn’t high on the movie’s mind except, again, in that the group thrives on the mutual consumption of low-cost pleasures like pool and beer (which renders Livingston’s character, being apparently in a somewhat higher income bracket, vaguely suspect).
The movie is generally at its most engaging when simply observing this natural order of things, in particular because Olivia Wilde – previously a beautiful but unengagingly frosty presence in House and various forgettable pictures – is something of a revelation here, entirely engaged and alert and ventilating every scene she’s in. But Swanberg doesn’t particularly cash in on his enhanced resources, and Drinking Buddies just drifts amiably away to an outcome of no particular consequence. Actually, it’s worse than that – it’s a denial of whatever consequences it might embody: for instance, one or more of the characters seems poised to make what we can only read, based on information provided, as a disastrous decision, but we’re invited instead to view it as a happy ending, or at best not to concern ourselves about it.
In respects like these, it seems as if Swanberg’s interest in his characters just peters out, as if he’s more interested in the process than the destination. The film’s closing credits acknowledge a number of illustrious names, including Mike Nichols, Elaine May and Paul Mazursky. I don’t know if Swanberg had any direct contact with any of these individuals, or whether they’re just spiritual mentors, but either way, by evoking them he only draws attention to the limitations of his own approach. Mazursky, for example, certainly shares a similar warm-hearted interest in matters of the heart (in films such as Blume in Love and Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice) but he’s also a tough-minded Hollywood survivor who filled his films with substantial, often older performers, and made sure they had distinct beginnings, middles and endings. It’s certainly hard to see Mazursky abandoning any of his central characters in the way I described. Likewise, May seems like a much more meticulous, immersed orchestrator of her films than Swanberg has so far allowed himself to be (to take that point to the extreme, it’s hard to imagine him ever generating such a fascinating grand folly as Ishtar, even in the unlikely event that he was given the chance).
Still, Drinking Buddies has plenty of small pleasures, on the scale of those obtained from another night of beers with the usual crowd. It may be narrow territory, but Swanberg knows it pretty well, and you often find yourself smiling at something in recognition or appreciation. It’s not so much of an achievement compared to the breadth of what Fassbinder evoked, but then, he burned out tragically soon. Maybe Swanberg’s formula of rapid productivity within a narrower range will prove itself the foundation for a satisfying long game.