Millennial courtship is markedly different from that social ritual previous generations called dating—and not just because of the advent of smartphones and Snapchat. We’re basically the first generation in which men and women weren’t raised to believe that the opposite sex was some separate species only to be approached during peak mating season. Regardless of your chromosomes, if you grew up in a middle-class home in the 90s, then you probably have quite a bit in common with most other middle-class 90s kids—male or female. We were all forced to play soccer. We all thought oversized pants were fierce. And we’ve all seen at least ten episodes of Saved by the Bell (and at least two episodes of Saved by the Bell: The College Years). So the old When Harry Met Sally cliché about the impossibility of male-female friendships is no longer self-evident—except when it is.
Because all of this commonality and friendship often leads to a whole lot of confusion that really wasn’t an issue when heterosexual men and women had nothing in common except intercourse. You now have all kinds of blurry relationships. You have a work boyfriend, who you flirt with from 9-6 but rarely see outside the office. You have a straight male friend who shares your love of Girls. And you probably have a significant other with whom you watch Mad Men and mock congressional Republicans. So what differentiates these relationships? Not much. Except sex, of course. But the blurred boundaries invite a whole lot of questions about why it is you’re screwing one of these guys and not the other two.
In Joe Swanberg’s Drinking Buddies, Luke and Kate should obviously be the ones screwing. Every romantic comedy you’ve ever seen since Beatrice and Benedick debated their way to matrimony has led you to believe that the flirting, passionate male/female duo will eventually knock some boots. But in an age when men and women passionately flirt with lots of people, this is no longer such a simple formula. Luke and Kate may exude sexual tension like they’re a pair of caged bonobos, but they’re also a perfect example of friends whose obvious chemistry masks the fact that they’d be a horrible idea in real life. Because they’re the exact same person.
Luke is ostensibly the more mature member of this well lubricated duo. Kate barely sleeps, can’t be bothered to remove a month-old cake, and keeps showing up at her ex-boyfriend’s apartment. She’s that friend who was super fun at 19 but is now 29 and asking to borrow money—again. Luke, on the other hand, is chill. Nothing bothers this guy. But the film undermines your standard crazy girl/calm guy dichotomy by revealing that Luke’s supposed tranquility is no less immature or self-destructive than Kate’s impulsiveness.
Luke is the prototypical hipster alpha male—in that (a) he has a costume complete with period beard and (b) he is superficially progressive but treats women no differently than your average Grand-Theft-Auto-playing bro. When Luke’s long-term girlfriend brings up the topic of marriage, he responds that they should wait until the moment feels right. They shouldn’t force anything or put pressure on their relationship—even though it’s well past the five-year mark. Ah, the Tao of the hipster alpha male! Here’s a rough translation of his profound insights: “I hear what you’re saying about having needs and desires, but those, unfortunately, contradict with what I want, so we’re going to just continue doing exactly what I want. And you’re going to go along with it because you’re a nice girl who doesn’t want to have to find another boyfriend on OKCupid.” Thanks, hipster alpha male! Luke’s Zen-master act then simply distorts his entitlement until it looks like wisdom. But ultimately he’s just as selfish and frightened of adulthood as Kate. He just has a better costume.
A viewer could finish Drinking Buddies believing that a stray nail undoes this (non)couple, but this isn’t a film about fate. It’s about compatibility. It’s about modern couples that seem like such an excellent idea in theory but fall apart in practice. Luke and Kate are both semi-functioning alcoholics with commitment issues and a tenuous hold on adulthood. They both require stable partners to balance their immaturity because a relationship can’t work when both partners are the crazy one. Because, at the end of the day, someone has to do the dishes. And it’s clear that neither Luke nor Kate is going to be cleaning up anytime soon.