Character actors can wait entire careers for the kind of breakthrough J.K. Simmons had in “Whiplash.” The Oscar-winning role propelled the well-liked but often under-the-radar actor to everything from the talk-show circuit to “Saturday Night Live” host. But an Oscar is no golden ticket to better material, as demonstrated by “All Nighter,” a wan, mismatched buddy comedy toplining Simmons and Emile Hirsch that’s destined to disappear quickly from theaters and VOD.
The part may be tailor-made for Simmons’ no-nonsense persona, and his performance reliably rock solid, but the bland execution of director Gavin Wiesen and the uninspired scripting of Seth Owen have no comic zing. It’s a night all too easy to forget.
The pic opens on an awkward first meeting between Hirsch’s nebbishy Martin and Simmons’ commanding Mr. Gallo, the father of Martin’s g.f., Ginnie (Analeigh Tipton). Ginnie isn’t particularly close to her dad, so the fact that he responds with a mix of blank stares and incredulous comebacks to the revelations that Martin plays the banjo, is the son of an environmental activist, and can’t drink wine due to a sulfite allergy doesn’t automatically doom their relationship. Martin even nudges Ginnie to see her father more often, no matter how uncomfortable it might be for the younger man.
Nevertheless once this prologue wraps, the action cuts to six months later, when a brokenhearted Martin is down in the dumps over a breakup with Ginnie, and Gallo somewhat improbably knocks on the front door looking for his daughter. He hasn’t been able to reach her for several days, and she still isn’t picking up her phone, so Martin reluctantly agrees to help Gallo retrace Ginnie’s steps since she left three months ago.
The not-so-wild adventure leads to an assortment of mildly quirky characters including combative married couple Gary (Taran Killam, going all-in for a role with little reward) and Roberta (Kristen Schaal, underused); Ginnie’s hard-partying best friend Megan (Xosha Roquemore); and a thinly written alternative love interest (Shannon Woodward) for Martin. As the night drags on, not only do Martin and Gallo engage in forced bonding (mostly over Bob Seger) but the seemingly cool-as-ice Gallo inevitably opens up about his inner pain.
Gamely throwing himself into a progression of lackluster set pieces — and rocking a tight pink ladies T-shirt with the phrase “Keep It Juicy” for close to half of the mercifully brief 80 minute running time — Simmons singlehandedly labors to make the film watchable. The way he can earn a genuine laugh casually tossing off a tired line like, “Is this whole neighborhood stoned?” underlines how much he could’ve done with a better script.
Hirsch feels more adrift in a role Gallo at one point accurately labels “namby pamby,” but the film’s faults don’t really lie with any of the actors. Wiesen hasn’t grown as a filmmaker since his lackluster Sundance-launched debut feature “The Art of Getting By” dropped in 2011, and the film’s rote tech contributions and all-encompassing mediocrity won’t be much of a surprise to anyone who saw that earlier picture.