Patrick Brice’s brief but plenty squirmy comedy The Overnight is the latest entry in a subgenre that might be called (I’m borrowing from Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) the Cocktail Party Walpurgisnacht. The setup for such works is simple but potent. Couples gather in a spirit of superficial geniality, alcohol and perhaps other mind-altering substances are consumed, and out slip the demons. Partners might be swapped. There might or might not be physical violence. But buried secrets are always exhumed, and emotional blows scored. The suspense comes from uncertainty over how deep and dark the filmmaker (or playwright) will go. A sudden lurch into the realm of horror seems possible — the line is that porous.
Early in The Overnight, the strained cheerfulness works on your nerves. Newly arrived with their little boy in Los Angeles, Alex (Adam Scott) and Emily (Taylor Schilling) feel lonely and disconnected: It’s not easy for parents of small kids to make friends. But at a playground, they’re accosted by Kurt (Jason Schwartzman), a chummy hipster who invites them to dinner that very night. Alex and Emily arrive with their son and a bottle of Two-Buck Chuck at what turns out to be a gated mansion. (They hastily scrape off the label.) Inside, they meet Kurt’s slender French wife, Charlotte (Judith Godreche), and find themselves plied with luscious wine and food. Kurt talks animatedly about his work in sewage treatment — desalinization via osmosis — in poor countries. Then things get progressively more discombobulating.
The Overnight distills L.A. anxieties beautifully. The first half rests on the mystery of these peoples’ friendliness, the source of their wealth, and what they do behind closed gates — California tending to symbolize extreme rebellion from the East Coast’s Puritan codes. And why is Kurt so effusive? His manner signals either a mad desire to be liked or some sinister agenda. In one scene, Alex gazes on Kurt’s artwork and expresses an impulse to paint, whereupon Kurt tells Alex he can do anything he puts his mind to, finally taking hold of him and announcing, “You are a painter! You’re great!” What the hell is he talking about?
Kurt’s artwork, by the way, focuses on “portals” — of the human posterior sort. And once director Brice has the backside covered, he moves to the front. Breast milk comes into play — much as it does in Mad Max: Fury Road. A comparison of the two men’s sexual equipment dominates the second half. How you respond will depend on your gender, your sexual predilections, and how much thought you normally give the issue of size. I imagine most women will be amused. I would not presume to speak for gay men, though the vibes turn homoerotic quickly. Hetero males might feel what used to be called homosexual panic — i.e., the fear that if you gaze at a big dick for too long, you’ll end up wanting it in your mouth. I really don’t know. In movies, it’s an undiscovered country. (For the record, the penises in The Overnight are prosthetics.)
The actors manage to show crack comic timing while looking as if they’re groping along blindly — a high compliment for psychodrama. Scott is near-poetic in how he expresses Alex’s anxiety and discomfort, and I’ve never liked Schwartzman as much as I do here. He’s often cast as misanthropes, but my hunch is that he’s closer to Kurt in how he tries to put people at ease (for whatever reason) than he is to the glowering jerk of last year’s Listen Up Philip. The women in the film have less to do, but Godreche elegantly modulates her subtextual sighs and glares, while Schilling — who’s essentially the film’s straight man — keeps you wondering when her character’s long-suppressed dissatisfaction will erupt.
Fair warning: There’s an epilogue that nearly wrecks the movie — it reminded me of the detective scene at the end of Psycho. Modern indie ensemble movies (The Overnight, like so many others, is executive-produced by Mark Duplass) don’t need false closure, and this one especially seems to thrive on indefiniteness and uncertainty. Does Brice even fully grasp what he’s getting at? Maybe not. That’s why this is such a juicy specimen of the Cocktail Party Walpurgisnacht subgenre. He’s in nearly the same place as his riven characters.