Material that once would have been viewed as taboo now seems almost innocuous in “The Overnight,” an alternately racy and tender L.A.-set sex comedy. A perfectly cast quartet of actors buoy the slight, generally unpredictable antics of writer-director Patrick Brice’s second feature, though the film itself falls into an uncomfortable middle ground between trying too hard and not trying hard enough. Decidedly limited in appeal, sometimes admirably so, offbeat pic’s risque elements will be a challenge to market in an increasingly tricky indie landscape.
Calling it a 21st-century “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice” as filtered through the distinctly niche sensibilities of exec producers the Duplass brothers might be the easiest pitch. Touting the film’s over-reliance on prosthetic penises, sported by male leads Adam Scott and Jason Schwartzman in extended sequences, would be the crassest.
Pic opens with recent L.A. transplants Alex (Scott) and Emily (Taylor Schilling) mid-coitus, indulging in spirited dirty talk before uncoupling to finish themselves off individually. In the first sign that Brice isn’t above sitcom-level shenanigans, precocious tot RJ (RJ Hermes) barges in just as Alex reaches climax. Clearly not all is quite right with Alex and Emily’s sex life, but Brice stops short of including onscreen text “more on that later.”
Instead the pair is approached at a playground by gregarious local Kurt (Schwartzman) who spontaneously invites them to his house that evening, promising a playdate for their sons and a grown-up dinner for the adults. Alex and Emily arrive at Kurt’s ritzy abode toting a bottle of embarrassingly cheap wine, and receive a warm greeting from Kurt’s glamorous French wife Charlotte (Judith Godreche).
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After a pleasant dinner and conversation, Kurt suggests putting the boys to bed. His gentle mastery of lulling children to sleep without a fuss only encourages Alex and Emily’s feelings that they’ve found their new best friends — at least, until Charlotte lets her hand wander onto Alex’s leg, the first sign that more than friendship may be in the offing.
From there, Brice has ample fun playing with and subverting expectations. Just when you think you know what will happen next — the moment Kurt presses play on a DVD of Charlotte’s work as an “actress,” or Charlotte gets Emily alone in a room to commiserate about living amongst men — the script takes great pleasure in offering up a left-field twist.
“The Overnight” invites the audience to keep guessing exactly who is seducing whom, and exactly where the temptations will lead, right up to its final few beats. Barely hitting 70 minutes before the credit crawl, this comedy successfully achieves a climax of its own that is equal parts exciting and frustrating.
No matter how engagingly bizarre or self-consciously quirky the narrative becomes, it’s kept entirely grounded by the ensemble’s four seasoned pros. Scott, Schilling and Schwartzman bring shared experience delivering nuanced turns in outrageous scenarios on top-tier TV comedies, and their ability to give line readings a unique comedic spin and bring out the best in their scene partners looks effortless here.
Godreche is perhaps the true surprise, fitting in comfortably with her co-stars while lending the very L.A.-centric film an appropriately exotic flair. Not only is there no weak link in the cast, Brice smartly grants each thesp the chance to play off the others in a effective series of rotating pairings. The helmer also allows all four characters equal opportunities to be funny without being the butt of the joke.
Doing something of a 180-degree reversal from his Jason Blum and Duplass-produced debut thriller “Creep,” Brice still keeps the action fairly limited and contained in Blumhouse fashion. He may want to get out a bit more in the future. An excursion Charlotte and Emily take to a massage parlor supplies the sharply assembled pic’s stylistic high point, complete with playful composition by d.p. John Guleserian and nerve-wracking sound mix by Sean O’Malley and Gene Park.
Although they never appear on screen, there are enough stray Duplass influences here — “Togetherness,” “The One I Love,” “Humpday” and “Baghead” all variously come to mind — to fit neatly into the siblings’ ever-growing stable of cinematic work.