Capone's Art-House Round-Up with Joe Swanberg's DRINKING BUDDIES and the appalling AUSTENLAND!!!
Hey, folks. Capone in Chicago here, with a few films that are making their way into art houses or coming out in limited release around America this week (maybe even taking up one whole screen at a multiplex near you). Do your part to support these films, or at least the good ones…
Since he's started making films less than 10 years ago, Chicago-based filmmaker Joe Swanberg has gotten a reputation for a couple of different things. First, he works incredibly fast. He's made 21 films (or segments of films, such as a portion of the horror anthology V/H/S), including a couple that he's shot since his latest, DRINKING BUDDIES. And those 21 films don't even include all of the films he's acted in, although he does tend to act in a many of his own works. The other thing he's known for is bringing out raw, emotional, often-tormented performances from his actors, including the likes of Mark Duplass, Greta Gerwig, Jess Weixler, Amy Seimetz and Jane Adams, several of whom he is credited with discovering.
But DRINKING BUDDIES is something different, more accessible, and, dare I say, more mainstream thanks to an impressive cast of known actors doing largely improvised dialogue in a story covering familiar Swanberg territory—the disintegration of relationships. But much of the first half of the film feels like a slightly more mature version of a romantic comedy, with Chicago brewery (Revolution Brewing, actually) co-workers Kate (Olivia Wilde) and Luke (Jake Johnson, also a Chicagoan) having many conversations and moments of flirting over hours of drinking. Despite the fact that she's the boss, the two actually make a great couple, a reality slightly ruined by the fact that each has a serious significant other back home. Kate is dating the slightly dickish music producer named Chris (Ron Livingston), while Luke is practically engaged to Jill (Anna Kendrick).
Both couples agree that they need more couple friends, so the four of them do a weekend trip at a cabin in the woods by the lake, and problems start to develop between all parties, but the upshot is that Kate and Luke are drawn closer. The relationships both become messy and tumultuous, and we're back to classic Swanberg, with people struggling with both new and old connections. As with many of Swanberg's more dramatic films (as opposed to some of his more recent horror offerings), the story isn't really the point. The strength of DRINKING BUDDIES rests in its series of conversations about love, life, drinking, and responsible and irresponsible behavior—in other words, things people talk about in real life.
The film is also one of Swanberg's best-looking works, thanks in large part to an understated atmosphere courtesy of cinematographer Ben Richardson (BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD). But one of the most interesting elements of DRINKING BUDDIES is the power that is derived from what the characters don't say to each other—quite a switch for a filmmaker who seems to revel in the talkative nature of his creations. The authenticity of the improv doesn't always ring true, but some talented actors and a sure hand at pushing the performances into some ugly places at times give this movie a consistent strength and wisdom that makes it a really enjoyable watch.
How the hell did this get made? Okay, granted, Jane Austen's novel have had something of a following in the world for a couple hundred years. But I can't imagine anyone who love "Emma" or "Pride and Prejudice" or "Sense and Sensibility" would be anything but insulted at their passion for Austen's works after seeing AUSTENLAND, the appallingly unfunny film from director and co-writer Jerusha Hess (best known as the co-writer of NAPOLEON DYNAMITE, NACHO LIBRE and GENTLEMEN BRONCOS), based on the novel from co-writer Shannon Hale.
In this dismal tale, Keri Russell (WAITRESS, "The Americans") plays Jane Hayes, who has a sad, desperate obsession with Austen's works, including an unreasonable assumption that the man she falls in love with will be a carbon copy of Mr. Darcy. She even has a life-size cardboard standee of Colin Firth as Darcy from his PRIDE AND PREJUDICE adaptation. Her friend is worried about her obsession, especially when Jane is considering draining her savings account and flying to England for an Austen-themed experience at a converted manor run by Mrs. Wattlesbrook (Jane Seymour), perhaps the only thing close to an inspired choice in this dreadful film. Jane's friend makes her promise that if she doesn't meet a man during this trip, she must expunge her home off all things Austen.
If the filmmakers had maybe attempted to make a semi-serious look at people who might actually attend an outing like this, there might be something here. But within minutes of arriving at the manor, she meets a rich, horny middle-aged Elizabeth Charming (Jennifer Coolidge), whose only reason for being there is to bed the many good-looking, younger male costumed actors, hired to woo the women who have paid a small fortune to be there. And I pretty much checked out watching Coolidge resign herself to playing a stereotype she essentially invented.
Also on hand is the young, pretty Lady Amelia Heartwright (Georgia King of the recently cancelled series "The New Normal"), whose motives for being there are a little less clear. She seems to befriend Jane, but also asks her to do things that always seem to get her in trouble with Wattlesbrook. Oh, the shenanigans! Some of the men in question include Bret McKenzie ("Flight of the Conchords") as the horse groomer Martin, whom Jane gravitates to because he's not a fancy man like the rest; James Callis ("Battlestar Galactica") plays the snooty Col. Andrews; and JJ Field is the most Darcy-ish of the bunch as Mr. Henry Nobley, who seems the right combination of gruff and charming for Jane to get a little curious about.
AUSTENLAND doesn't take long to reduce itself to sitcom-style misadventures and humor, and while I would never say that anyone in the film is better than that, no one really sold me on the fact that they even want to be in this movie. There are weird pauses after each attempt at a joke, which I realized were beats meant for audience laughter that will never come. The more you love Jane Austen, the harder you should convince yourself and others to stay far away from this inane, empty-headed film. It doesn't respect the author or those who love her, but it also doesn't mock them in a way that is in any way clever or interesting. It just shits on their passion and hopes that people find it funny. I didn't.
-- Steve Prokopy
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