Cramped cringe comedy near its most unpleasant, Patrick Brice’s The Overnight finds a boring married couple dragged into an unpleasant and unusual dinner party. Imagine Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? without the witty dialogue or precision characterizations. New to Los Angeles, the couple (Taylor Schilling and Adam Scott) jumps at the opportunity to meet new people when their young son makes a new friend whose dad (Jason Schwartzman) invites them over for pizza. He seems nice, but soon he and his wife (Judith Godrèche) are talking about her career modeling breast pumps, offering weed and wine, showing off his intimate paintings, and offering a skinny dip in the pool. Scott and Schilling do an adequate job locating the uneasy confusion the couple feels when confronted with what appears to be a pair of predatory libertines.
They pull horrified faces and slide into unease as they’re testing the limits of personal boundaries and inhibitions. It should be funny, but it coasts on thin characters’ potential embarrassment instead of writing funny scenes. (The cast is full of likable performers who’ve never been duller.) Schwartzman’s character sidles up to a stoned Scott, leads him to the basement, and coos at him about posing for some casual pictures, coaxing him to take his shirt off and bend over. That’s a scene played for creepiness. Even closer to horror-tinged squeamishness is a sequence in which Godrèche tricks Schilling into a massage parlor and locks her in a room, the better to look through a peephole as a stranger gets rubbed. So many of these scenes are shot with queasy creep-out vibes, especially as the color red washes through the cheap digital cinematography and we get intense close-ups of an eye twitching, gawking in cautious curiosity.
Such a stumbling and mumbling sort of discomfort, these detours into nauseous suspense had me wondering if we were in for a bloodbath serial killer Texas Chainsaw ending. Of course that’s not actually the case. By its final scenes, Brice reveals he’s been making a movie about how uptight we all are, and how we stew in our loneliness instead of reaching out to others. It’s a good idea in theory, but one that bungles its intent by trading on creepy-crawly horror movie mechanics for the majority of its runtime. Even though there are all the usual fumbling one-liners and boozing and dancing montages a party movie provides, they’re constantly undercut by a flat-footed unease that thinks it’s more interesting than it is. So visually and emotionally impoverished, I found it almost unwatchable at times as it continually teases explicitness and epiphanies it never actually gets around to.
As the night progresses, the discomfort gives way to tentative half-formed (half-convincing) friendships. All four characters spill insecurities along the way, like a cracked support group, but they’re revealing body image issues, marital boredom, and other ideas explored better elsewhere. And there’s no real sense impromptu therapy sessions are opening up naturally. It’s all too calculated for therapeutic exhibitionism, for revealing real discomfort as people blindly grasp for validation and comfort from strangers. But right where the affected creepiness falls away to a moment of real connection, the movie pulls back. It comes on so strong and wrong for the better part of an hour, forcing the audience to look at flat, ugly framing and smeary colors as characters engage in cringe-worthy behavior, it’s dismaying to see it go so flaccid in the end.
It wants to build to a transgressive open-minded climax, but is too cramped and judgmental to pull off a Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice breezy acceptance. How else to explain its most revealing scene, where wobbling artificial body parts are used for a joke, then later used as a source of magnanimous acceptance? It’s difficult to be asked to laugh at someone’s body and then, a minute later, get pat on the back for recognizing the error of body shaming. The Overnight simply lacks the dexterity to turn from a freak show cringe comedy to an empathetic coming together. It manages to back away from its final implications into a wan punch line instead of dealing with the far more interesting ramifications of the place at which it arrives.