Parenthood is a strange and wonderful journey (or so I’ve heard), but one of the most curious and plainly seen transformations that occurs during child-rearing relates to social exposure. Juggling jobs to pay the bills and spending quality time with the kids really doesn’t leave much time for anything that isn’t related to their immediate well-being, including interacting with other adults outside the family for your personal benefit. And beyond that, it’s difficult to tackle opening lines of communication with anyone new, even the types of individuals who can be dubbed ‘parent friends.’ By meeting through your children, you share an immediate and potent bond, but that connection, which isn’t really about you at all, is far from the only one necessary to form the basis of a real adult friendship. You want your kids to like each other, sure, but you want to be liked as well, on your own merits, when the kids are off playing and you’re left to make actual conversation.
That’s a tricky balance to strike, and writer-director Patrick Brice handles it nimbly in The Overnight, a decidedly adult comedy about sexual fantasy, monogamy and suburban malaise, seen through the eyes of new parents still clinging to the idea that the rest of their lives need not be meticulously choreographed by convention. As the film opens, we meet youngish, middle-class parents Alex (Adam Scott) and Emily (Taylor Schilling) in the throes of hilariously passionless lovemaking, both attempting to get some kind of satisfaction before they’re interrupted by their blithely innocent, cape-wearing kid. It’s far and away the film’s most depressing scene.
Taking their son to the park, Alex and Emily sit and talk about the worrying prospect of meeting other parents after their recent move to Los Angeles. But quickly, they’re accosted by the gregarious, hipster-ish Kurt (Jason Schwartzman), who notices that their sons have taken a shine to one another and has already invited the family to dinner almost before the two can open their mouths. Caught a little off guard but thrilled at the possibility of making a new friend this soon, they accept. Toting their son and a bottle of cheap-o wine (which Alex tears the label from, pretending it’s “organic” and from an indie winery), they arrive at what turns out to be a gated mansion. Inside, they meet Kurt’s French belle of a wife, Charlotte (Judith Godreche), send the boys off to play and launch headfirst into animated discussion.
As the conversation and wine flows freely, with the foursome touching on everything from Kurt’s work in sewage treatment (Alex and Emily aren’t convinced for a second that Kurt’s stated career could have paid for his lavish home) to Charlotte’s unusual acting career (no spoilers here), The Overnight thrives on the evening’s growing sense of unease. To the straight-laced dinner guests, watching their hosts kiss and openly exult in what’s ostensibly a very active sex life is more than a little unnerving, and there’s enough mystery surrounding Kurt and Charlotte to make us, like Alex and Emily unsure what we should think of them.
Brice, who had a breathtaking horror breakout earlier this year in the Mark Duplass starrer Creep, lets the camera linger and the dialogue hang in the air, as if watching the couples circle some sort of psychosexual abyss. And in some senses, The Overnight unfolds like a cosmopolitan horror film – Kurt and Charlotte carefully strip away their guests’ inhibitions with a slippery professionalism, and there are multiple points at which you’re half expected Kurt to open a closet and reveal some deep, dark, film-redefining secret. But The Overnight isn’t quite that kind of film – or is it? Brice revels in the uncertainty. He’s far more interested in positing questions of genteel hypocrisy, sexual discord and New Age-y philosophy than he is in answering them.
What begins as a dinner party evolves into an adult sleepover, with Kurt unveiling his very eccentric artwork (called ‘Portals,’ they’re swirling close-ups of the human posterior) and encouraging his guests to strip off for a poolside skinny-dip. Intoxicated with wine, pot and a desire not to spurn their new friends, they oblige. And soon enough, The Overnight reveals a minor obsession with the human anatomy, both from behind and full-frontal – specifically of men, with Schwartzman donning a huge prosthetic penis and Scott sporting a tiny (also prosthetic) one for a side-by-side comparison of what constitutes masculinity to the Millennial Generation (the irony of that conflict erupting between the two male leads, neither exactly Hollywood studs, is fully emphasized). Female viewers will likely get as much of a bemused kick out of the scene as Charlotte and Emily do, though Brice smartly treats Alex’s exposure – a watershed moment for the self-conscious character – poignantly instead of mockingly.
That respect for the central foursome here is what sets The Overnight apart from most sex comedies – though there’s a strangeness to each of them, from Schwartzman’s vaguely predatory polymath to Schilling’s repressed straight man, the actors and director work to shade in the details, so finely as to transform caricatures into relatable, flesh-and-blood individuals. They understand the incredible significance the evening has to both couples and never downplay that. Godreche is a particular standout, bringing an exotic flair to the otherwise white-American cast, and Schwartzman gets all the most outrageous lines (this is the most kooky yet likeable the actor has been since HBO’s Bored to Death), but Scott and Schilling bring nuance to characters that lesser actors wouldn’t have bothered to extricate from cliché.
There’s not a weak link in the pic, and Brice cleverly plays the lead four actors off one another, rotating pairings so that each duo gets a chance to connect and collide (the contrast between Scott’s introverted schlub and Schwartzman’s silver-tongued libertine is a total riot). He also doesn’t outstay his welcome, keeping the film to an unheard-of 79 minutes. That brief runtime still allows The Overnight plenty of freedom to deliver on its silly-sexy premise and all the while subvert any expectations you might bring into the theater.
The film is far more unsettling and sincere than your average comedy, but it also never neglects its more humorous aspects, leading to a moviegoing experience not dissimilar to waggling a feather in front of your nose. It teases, titillates and sneakily taps into some unexpected truths about the constant balancing act between self-expression and licentiousness that all of us – especially married couples – face on a daily basis. You won’t see another movie with as many pensive, prurient pleasures up its sleeve this summer.
Like the sex comedy it's billed as, The Overnight teases and titillates, but the film's sincerity in addressing the messiness of monogamy is what really cements its bawdy brilliance.