Patrick Brice’s The Overnight better resembles a journey than a romp—evidence of the director’s respect for the story he tells. Instead of simply catering to our curiosities as the predictably unpredictable night unfolds, the film compels the audience to take a step back and look through a few different lenses, avoiding the oversimplification of its hyped-up storyline. Brice’s evident ambitions remain humble, and the film never suggests it’s trying to comment too broadly on anything aside from the characters and plots it features. The story is extremely well paced as a result of being deliberately contained to this one shared experience, without excess exposition to drag things out.
The audience first meets Alex (Adam Scott, Parks and Recreation) and Emily (Taylor Schilling, Orange Is the New Black) on a hurried morning. They’re new in town, Emily fast returning to work and Alex taking care of their son R.J. (R.J. Hermes). Alex appears particularly concerned with the duo’s impending social life. Everything about their new L.A. culture is unfamiliar—even the idea of wearing shorts, or, as they think of them, “summer pants.” Aside from any distance between the two of them, the couple must deal foremost right now with a collective dissonance between reality and former expectations. Whatever was normal before, they realize, may not pass for L.A. normal.
At the playground with R.J., they meet Kurt (Jason Schwartzman of Wes Anderson film canon) and Charlotte (Judith Godrèch), a seemingly more open-minded couple with a son of similar age. Invited to spend the evening at the new friends’ house, Alex and Emily decide to forge ahead and figure out what may be their new normal. New friends for R.J. and perhaps for them: what’s unappealing about that?
As Alex and Emily enter the fenced property, their tension helps usher in a sense of uncertainty—not negative, not positive, but unfamiliar. After Kurt helps charm the children into a slumber, he convinces Alex and Emily that theirs is a French house, in which adults continue to have play dates past the children’s bedtime. This emphasis on their own intended fun seems slightly foreign to Emily and Alex, and from here the film steps slowly but consciously into a territory both deliciously mysterious and potentially obvious.
If you’ve watched the trailer, you know that things are supposed to get crazy. Kurt and Charlotte may be swingers. Alex and Emily may be in way over their heads. All of these insinuations serve to aid the film in its purposeful and steady maneuvering of the audience and its main couple into a new experience. Eventually, that sense of uncertainty organically helps to further our characters’ self-exploration and our own ongoing curiosity.
When night turns into morning, who’s to say what takes place in those vague wee hours? Alex and Emily’s discomfort and Kurt and Charlotte’s apparent ease and swank combine to create an atmosphere of fun, flirty confusion. Any weirdness is complemented by humor, and the film thrives on the hilarious, slightly disconcerting balance of the teeter-tottering known and unknown.
Ultimately, although the film carries the audience further into the night on the coattails of mysterious hints of sexual promises, what makes the movie effective is the depth allowed the characters in spite of the rudimentary plot. We see Alex and Emily question what they consider regular and normal, and we see that for them the uncertainty may spring not just from being in a new place and meeting new people but also from long-seated tensions surrounding their typical lifestyle. As new parents, it takes a lot to consider their own relationship (let alone their individual selves), and going on the adult portion of this play date compels them to consider who they are—individually, in relation to one another, and in the setting of a larger world. Brice’s characterization of Kurt and Charlotte also dispels any myths surrounding their complete confidence, as they reveal their own motives and their own reasons for needing a night like this.
The Overnight fails to meet all of its goals, as the foursome is given limited time for individual characterization. Although the dynamic between Alex and Emily, and the one between Alex/Emily and Kurt/Charlotte, are strong enough to propel the plot forward, each member of this group could have used a bit more attention in order to fully justify the overall emotional result. The female characters, in particular, struggle to be fully realized. Whereas Scott and Schwartzman develop a charismatic relationship as a result of numerous emotionally and physically developed interactions, Schilling and Godrèche are denied that level of mutual understanding. I’ve struggled to determine whether their interactions actually pass the Bechdel test, but, in the meantime, I’ll say that the characters’ relative depth is more a testament to the actors’ dedication than to the raw material.
Schilling and Scott instill humor in most of the movie’s moments through, most prominently, their impeccably timed facial expressions. Thanks to Scott’s deadpan delivery (similar to Ben Wyatt’s in a less self-assured, less outwardly successful character) and Schilling’s consciously understated reactions to the ridiculous (unlike Piper Chapman’s pronounced displays of emotion and thought), the film definitely meets its expected quota of raucous hilarity. It’s easy to relate to Alex’s trepidation and body consciousness and to Emily’s comfort with and confidence in the familiar. The couple expresses a tenderness and adherence to routine (sexual and otherwise) that adds weight to their momentary decisions. Schwartzman, meanwhile, manages to humanize Kurt, a character that in another film might have been reduced to sleazy caricature, and to convey authenticity in his intentions. All four actors share an ability to balance the film’s easy humor with surprisingly nuanced familiarity.
The film is mature in ways you might not expect. This isn’t just a movie filled with adult sexual content, as the trailer might imply. Rather, it’s a movie the content and characters of which undergo truly mature developments. Granted, you could choose just to focus on the prosthetic body parts, unusual paintings, and mix of illegal substances in the poolside plot and find the humor in that—but you’d be missing the point.
The script and the actors’ delivery provide for a level of compassion perhaps diluted by the surrounding expectations of raunchiness. Look past the wild night and the straightforward story in The Overnight, and you’ll find moments of necessary introspection and a base reality here: hints of an emotional journey summed up by the honest hours spent between these characters but never reduced to the hilarity of their strangest moments. And, in between, you’ll definitely stifle a possibly sympathetic, undeniably gratifying cackle or ten.