PARK CITY, UT: There’s a lot about Patrick Brice’s The Overnight that’s unique—its peculiar tone, its anything-goes storytelling, its candor in matters of sexuality—but it’s also one of the few non-pornographic movies I can think of where the male nudity far exceeds the female. There’s an asterisk, though; the male genitalia on display are made of plastic. Jason Schwartzman’s Kurt whips off his pants to reveal a member whose width and girth rivals Dirk Diggler’s; Adam Scott’s Alex is, well, cursed with a very different organ. “Yeah, let’s make this clear right now: they were both prosthetics,” Scott announced in the Q&A following the film’s Sundance premiere Friday, and it’s probably worth noting that the frequency and prominence of their nudity isn’t even the most unpredictable thing about this very unusual comedy/drama.
The set-up is fairly innocuous: Alex and wife Emily (Taylor Schilling) have just moved to Los Angeles with their young son, and are a little bit worried about making new friends, what with their age and disposition. A trip to the park yields a possible solution: Kurt, who is the kind of guy who’ll tell you things like “My son Max is on a strict vegan diet,” but their kids seem to hit it off, and welcome to the neighborhood, care to join us for dinner? What’s the worst that could happen, right?
Brice has got a real knack for crafting characters and mood that are clearly leading you somewhere, without tipping exactly where. Early on, Kurt seems to be (and Schwartzman totally nails) the kind of well-intentioned yet stunningly pretentious hipster that you can’t dislike because he means so well, even though he makes sure you notice how well he means. But the more he talks and interacts, the less certain you are of what he’s up to—or his wife Charlotte (Judith Godreche), a French sophisticate who seems overly affectionate, even for a French sophisticate.
“This is California,” Alex reasons. “Maybe this is what dinner parties are like!” Scott is the perfect actor for a role like this, skilled as he is with wry takes at utter insanity; he’s the kind of actor who can get a huge laugh just by saying a line like “Oh, great.” And in that regard (among others) Schilling is well matched; once he’s three sheets to the wind, her wordless reactions are worth their weight in gold.
But there’s a perpetual mystery at the center of The Overnight, the question of what exactly these two strangers are up to, as they keep pushing the boundaries of acceptable first-time encounter behavior. It ends up as something of a cross between Who’s Afraid of Virgina Woolf and Score, the eyebrow-raising sexual possibilities complimented by real considerations of martial desire and “curiosity.” Not every film can pull off those shifts, but Brice has the right approach for it; as executive producer Mark Duplass noted in the Q&A, “a lot of times you see these kind of strange characters on screen, and the filmmakers are almost throwing darts at them, making fun of them. And Patrick just loves these kind of oddball characters, just truly appreciates them, so there’s a sweetness to a movie like this that you don’t often get.”
And thanks to that even-handedness, Brice manages to bring us to a payoff that is, all things considered, kind of amazing. The Overnight is a slight film, and not all of its tonal experiments work. But it’s a movie that frequently zigs when you expect it to zag, and it’s got a fluidity (in style and subject) that most movies don’t even think about trying.
The Overnight screens this week at the Sundance Film Festival.