It’s a tired Hollywood maxim that gorgeous actresses have to dress down and frump up to be taken seriously in their craft. Take that far enough — as the statuesque goddess Charlize Theron did in “Monster” — and there’s an Oscar in it for your trouble.
Olivia Wilde loses the makeup that made her the fanboys’ feminine ideal in “Tron” and “Cowboys & Aliens” and turns believably, charmingly working class for “Drinking Buddies,” a wistful romance about couples wishing they were couples with someone else.
And in this case, some of these lovers have a first love — beer.
Kate (Wilde) and Luke (Jake Johnson) are old friends who work in a Chicago’s Revolution Brewery — he’s in production, she’s just “one of the boys,” even though she works in marketing, setting up tastings, beer tents at public events and the like. They spend their days joshing with the team and enduring the boss (Jason Sudeikis), and their nights swilling the stuff they make and sell at a bar, The Empty Bottle.
Luke and Kate kid around, finish each other’s sentences and get each other’s jokes.
Kate’s a little bit too much “one of the boys” for her bookish beau, Chris (Ron Livingston). She doesn’t see that. Luke kind of does.
And when Luke takes up with cute special ed teacher Jill (Anna Kendrick), Kate shows a glint of jealousy.
It’s only when they go off for a couples’ weekend at a cabin in the woods that this simmering mismatched chemistry is put on the stove and allowed to boil over. Kate and Luke love to sit on the porch and drink, or sit in front of the fireplace and drink.
Chris and Jill would rather hike, talk about books and picnic.
Joe Swanberg, a prolific director in the recent, chatty-indie “mumblecore” tradition (“Nights and Weekends” is his best), creates a convincing, lived-in world and he and his actors cook up dialogue that feels real, uncluttered and yet poetic.
“Maybe we should ‘take a knee’ on this romance stuff.”
“I guess you have to take a person at their word that they’re actually into you.”
The set-up is predictably awkward and worn, but what they do with it and where the story takes us has plenty of surprises.
We knew Livingston, Kendrick and Johnson (“Safety Not Guaranteed”) would work in this setting. But Wilde adds to the growing repertoire she showed off in “Deadfall” and “Butter,” films no one saw but which revealed that she’s a lot more than a pretty face.
In “Drinking Buddies,” she and Johnson click — as friends, as possible lovers, and best of all, as two working people who can hold their beer.
Cast: Olivia Wilde, Anna Kendrick, Jake Johnson, Ron Livingston
Written and directed by Joe Swanberg. A Sony Magnolia release
Running time: 1:30
MPAA rating: R for language throughout