A cracked romantic comedy depicting a one-night-stand turned all-night-standoff, “Night Owls” gives new meaning to the studiospeak phrase “execution-dependent.” Navigating a sharp tonal shift, parceling out backstories on a strict need-to-know basis, and taking place under unbelievable circumstances set entirely in a single location, director Charles Hood’s sophomore feature could have gone south in any number of ways. Fortunately, the execution here is impressively adroit, with a clever script enlivened by two charmingly compatible lead performances from Rosa Salazar and Adam Pally. A bit too low-key for the mainstream, it could nonetheless attract decent arthouse or VOD attention, shining a spotlight on both halves of its winningly wrong central couple.
Dispensing with any hopes for a meet-cute, the film introduces protagonists Madeline (Salazar) and Kevin (Pally) as they stumble back to Madeline’s place after meeting at a banquet. She’s a bartender by trade, viper-eyed and lubricious; he’s a goofy, good-natured bumbler all too willing to ignore this scenario’s many red flags. For one, her expansive home and vintage wine collection appear several tax brackets removed from what anyone on a bartender’s salary could afford, and she seems almost feral in her haste to ignore his get-to-know-you small talk and get down to business. Yet for Kevin, these are but minor quibbles when faced with “the hottest girl who’s ever shown interest in me,” a line he intends as a compliment, though it comes across more like an expression of befuddled disbelief.
When he awakens shortly after consummating this hurried love affair, Kevin makes several unpleasant discoveries. Firstly, the house is actually owned by his boss and mentor, Will Campbell (Peter Krause), the town’s sanctified college football coach, who’s out of town preparing for a big game. Worse still, he discovers Madeline unconscious on the bathroom floor, having downed a whole bottle of Xanax while he was sleeping.
Calling his Machiavellian supervisor (Rob Huebel) for help, Kevin learns that Madeline was Will’s mistress, and he’s tasked with keeping her conscious and inside the house until morning, when his bosses can come to clean up the situation without creating a scandal. This occasions a gonzo sequence of dark physical comedy, as he first tries to make her vomit, then clumsily drags her limp body to and fro trying to keep her awake. By the time she starts sobering up, she pays him back in full — smacking him around, pepper-spraying him, and unleashing one caustic quip after another.
Before long, however, the pair resolve to make the most of the situation, and the pic downshifts into an increasingly earnest slice-of-life as the two ease into an after-hours therapy session and make-up date. It’s a testament to the film’s deceptively careful plotting that the ridiculousness of this whole premise only becomes clear in retrospect, and it flows quite naturally from blasts of black-humored slapstick to more naturalistic scenes of sweetly vulgar repartee.
What’s perhaps most impressive about the film’s construction is the way it manages to hit so many of the standard romantic-comedy beats without ever seeming contrived. (Rather than invent elaborate initial snafus to keep the couple apart, it simply has them beat the living crap out of each other.) But no matter how cleverly sketched, none of this would work at all without Salazar and Pally’s peculiar onscreen chemistry.
Salazar’s performance is obviously the fierier of the two — it’s not until halfway through the film that you stop expecting her to pull a switchblade on her co-star at any moment — but she takes it to interesting places in the film’s quieter second half. (Madeline doesn’t really care if she comes across as crazy or promiscuous; she just doesn’t like being underestimated.) Pally’s buttoned-down square takes his time (perhaps a bit too much) coming out of his shell, but the actor’s innate likability goes a long way, and his character arc even includes a rather deft critique of hero worship, as he comes to terms with the fact that he’s a far better person than the idol on whom he’s modeled all his good behavior.
“Night Owls” frontloads all of its most outrageous humor into the opening sequences, but director and co-scripter Hood keeps things light-footed throughout, while finding a number of unshowy ways to open up the limited setting.