“The Overnight” is the movie equivalent of fuzzy handcuffs: a tame and unimaginative attempt at spicing up the overly familiar scenario of a married couple trying to get their groove back. Thirtysomething Alex and Emily (Adam Scott and Taylor Schilling) haven’t yet succumbed to sexlessness — they’re seen boinking in the opening scene — but coitus interruptus soon arrives in the form of their toddler son.
“It smells funny,” the little boy complains, which is about as adorable as a boner-kill gets.
There’s not much more to writer-director Patrick Brice‘s four-person chamber comedy than Alex and Emily’s struggle to feel better about their private parts. In theory, it’s refreshing that the film takes erotic satisfaction so seriously, but in execution, we’re stuck with two sets of spouses — either naïve audience surrogates or improbable LA stereotypes — navel-gazing about their sex lives. Taking place from sunset to sunrise, Brice’s script boasts a few surprises, but this is essentially a highly competent film about boring people’s boring problems.
The specter of swingerdom follows Alex and Emily around as they visit the lavish home of Kurt and Charlotte (Jason Schwartzman and Judith Godrèche), mysteriously rich dilettantes who ply their guests with food, drinks, drugs and gentle pressure to relaxxxx. Recent transplants from Seattle, Emily and especially Alex are eager to become friends with their new acquaintances, even when Kurt shows his guests a DVD of his alluring French wife baring her chest in a breastfeeding how-to video.
As the night grows longer, so does the list of boundary-testing eccentricities that Kurt and Charlotte foist on Alex and Emily. After their boys fall asleep, the hosts start the night in earnest by skinny-dipping in the pool and introducing Kurt’s flowery paintings of pastel anuses ($50 if Alex can guess which one is the artist’s self-portrait). But when the quartet split into boys and girls, the troubles in swingers’ paradise begin to emerge: Kurt lays it on thick to Alex about the sexual talents of French women, while Charlotte admits to Emily that she and her husband have separate bedrooms.
As familiar as it is, Schwartzman’s ever-amusing skeevy-entertainer routine keeps the tone jaunty during a night full of bittersweet disclosures. Scott’s character is saddled with a man’s most dreaded secret, which the actor mines for understated gravity and eventually a sense of unburdened triumph. The women fare less well, though, which means that one half of the plotline feels much more underdeveloped than the other. Godrèche is a comic find, who’s nonetheless relegated to a sexpot role, while poor Schilling is largely stuck with the part of the uptight, buzzkill wife.
Though the jokes aren’t especially funny, relying as they frequently do on broad character types, there’s an intellectual thrill in watching them build, with each new sentence adding another layer of humor. It also helps that Brice achieves a sexual frankness, partly through equal-opportunity nudity, that never slides into raunch.
But the script can’t quite maintain the balance between realism and romp, and the ending in particular lands too far into the wrong side of that divide to be dramatically satisfying. Score one for suburban normalcy, and ultimately none for transgressive escapism.