In an interview with RogertEbert.com to promote The Overnight earlier this year, Adam Scott praised the late, great film critic, “The thing I always liked about Roger Ebert and his writing was that he would judge a film on its merits and what it was setting out to accomplish and how well it did so.” Do not force your own very specific tastes on a movie, Scott argued. Instead, primarily concern yourself with answering the following two questions: “What are [the movie’s] goals? And how well does it accomplish them?”
Let’s apply that advice to The Overnight, the inaugural film from Adam and his wife Naomi’s new production company (they previously produced AdultSwim’s The Greatest Event in Television History). The story in this micro-budget comedy revolves around Alex (Scott) and Emily (Taylor Schilling), a Seattle couple freshly moved to Los Angeles and thus without any real friends in town. Alex is a stay-at-home dad to their young son while Emily has an unspecified job, one which at the very least requires a business casual dress code.
Feeling socially isolated, they are delighted when their son hits it off with another boy at the nearby park, and that boy’s vegan-diet praising father Kurt (Jason Schwartzman) invites them over to meet his gorgeous French wife Charlotte (Judith Godreche) and have dinner. Later that night, Kurt and Charlotte convince them to put the kids down early and hang out for a little longer, maybe smoke some pot, live a little, setting this up as a “one crazy night” movie with just four characters.
What are the goals?
To shrewdly observe the inherent awkwardness adults feel when they try to make friends after they’ve reached a certain age/had kids. To be funny, but unpredictable. To use the “one crazy night” sub-genre to force characters to confront uncomfortable truths about their relationships.
How well does it accomplish its goals? –
The awkwardness of being an adult trying to make a new friend is beautifully captured in the early scene at the park where before Kurt enters the pictures Alex politely waves at a fellow dad who reacts with an intimidating death stare, seemingly alarmed by this stranger waving at him while he’s busy looking over his son’s birthday party. It’s a small moment nicely standing in for all the similar moments Alex has likely had while trying to meet new people since the move to LA, and it informs why he’s so hopeful that Kurt and Charlotte are truly as amazing as they initially seem to be.
You know that things will go wrong at some point, though, because otherwise The Overnight would simply be a movie about upper middle-class, late thirtysomethings having a play date for their kids. The delight comes from seeing exactly how things go wrong. With that premise, the story could go any number of directions. Is this secretly a horror movie? Have Alex and Emily met serial killers? Kurt and Charlotte seem nice if a tad bit eccentric, but how much should we read into their quirks, like the fact that they live in a gorgeous, spacious home with a view and a pool even though they’re very evasive when asked about their jobs? If it’s not a horror movie, what if Kurt and Charlotte are actually swingers and this is all leading to some Skinemax-worthy eroticism?
Well, spoiler alert, there’s no underground torture chamber or cellar of human body parts or anything horrific. There’s just an art gallery with some very peculiar pictures. It’s not The Gift, where a story about a displaced, socially isolated couple (Jason Bateman, Rebecca Hall) awkwardly making friends (or getting re-acquainted with an old friend, in that movie’s case) turned into an expertly paced psychological thriller. Instead, The Overnight is a kind of comedy of errors or misunderstandings, with Alex and Emily having very different views of what they think is happening. Even if you suspect Emily is right, you’re not entirely sure that she has all of her facts straight, especially since they’re all pretty high and drunk for large stretches of the evening.
At one point, Charlotte and Emily leave on a booze run, but Emily quickly figures out that they didn’t actually need any more liquor. Pressed for an explanation, Charlotte coyly explains that while they will indeed stop off at a liquor store they’re first going somewhere top secret, and she won’t spoil the surprise. We are as in the dark about it as the understandably flustered Emily, and that type of unpredictability is The Overnight’s ever-present badge of honor.
But while it keeps us on our toes it never forgets to make us laugh. Adam Scott’s signature dry wit is on full display as is his singular talent for playing drunk characters, and while Taylor Schilling is at times reduced to being the straight woman of the comedy foursome she has some of the film’s best emotional moments as well as much-needed questioning, “Okay, what the fuck is really going on here?” Jason Schwartzman’s emotionally open and gregarious Kurt is effortlessly charming, with plenty of well-timed, likely improvised jokes, such as yelling out “What’s taking so long? It’s not like we’re debating at the G8 Summit here” while Alex and Emily discuss whether or not to join in the skinny dipping. Judith Godreche, a new actress to me, plays Charlotte as a loving, but somewhat quiet character who later opens up.
The whole movie was actually filmed over 12 days, 10 nights, 2 days, and mostly at a single house. There wasn’t a whole lot of time for thorough planning. For example, Scott had only met Schilling once before they started filming meaning they didn’t even have the time to do the actorly thing of really hashing out their character’s backstories. Writer-director Patrick Brice gave them a long leash to improvise, which lends the film a naturalistic tone. For example, when they’re all in the pool together and arguing about how they’ll decide who wins the race they’re getting ready to do it feels completely real and in the moment, even if they were actually going off of the script in that and not improvising. It recalls childhood memories of arguing over what constituted “base” (i.e., the safe zone) before starting a game of tag with the rest of the kids on the block.
Thankfully, there is more going on here than just swim races and improvised jokes and a “Wait, so do they want to swap partners with us? Or are they just eccentric LA people, and we can’t really tell here because we’ve only just moved here?” scenario. We know from the opening scene of the movie that Alex and Emily are a sexually frustrated couple, and the way that is emotionally dealt with (they both have their own insecurities to work out) throughout the course of the long night is both funny and insightful without dipping into melodrama. By the end, as Scott told Grantland, “It turns into the craziest night of our lives. Things are revealed about ourselves, about our relationship, about our place in the world – we never thought the night would go in this direction. It’s really funny, but it also goes to some interesting places.”
The Bottom Line
It’s a movie with modest goals, and it accomplishes all of them, getting in and out with a running time just south of 80 minutes. It was made on a shoestring budget because even though the mid-budget movie of yesterday is dead that doesn’t mean some actors and producers with a little bit of money can’t rent a house for two weeks and make a fun movie together. In the case of The Overnight, I’m glad that they did.
RottenTomatoes Consensus (82%) | “Witty and unpredictable, The Overnight benefits from writer-director Patrick Brice’s sure-handed touch and strong performances from a talented cast.”
Adam Scott on Low-Budget Filmmaking
Talking to Grantland:
Technology is at a place now where you can make a movie with your phone, quite literally. Tangerine is about to come out. You can make a hundred million dollar movie, and you can make a fifty-thousand dollar movie. You don’t need much more than that to make a small movie these days whereas ten, fifteen years ago you would need three million dollars to do something like that.
There is a pivotal moment in this movie where we actually see what appears to be Jason Schwartzman and Adam Scott both going full-frontal, although they were each sporting a prosthetic penis. Because male full-frontal nudity in film is still so rare, when it does happen it often becomes the only thing people remember about the movie, like Harvey Keitel in The Piano and Michael Fassbender in Shame. In the case of The Overnight, it’s a little more complicated because it’s not just that we see their fake dicks; it’s that dick size becomes a fairly crucial element of the plot. So, it’s understandable, but I think The Overnight works better if you have no idea about any of that beforehand which is why I didn’t discuss any of that in my review.