Even with a goatee, Adam Scott has such a sweet baby face, and can exude such endearing boyishness, that when you see him in an early playground scene in his latest film, you're half-surprised that a more towering adult isn't pushing him on a swing. Yet longtime fans know that Scott also possesses a canny understanding of how to employ his naturally guileless countenance for tension (as in the 2002 thriller High Crimes) or melancholy (HBO's sadly ignored Tell Me You Love Me) or acerbic wit (Party Down, Parks & Recreation, and numerous et ceteras). And that chameleon-ic talent makes him perhaps perfectly cast in the new comedy The Overnight, writer/director Patrick Brice's three-quarters-successful chronicling of an alternately invigorating and deeply uncomfortable grown-up sleepover.
Scott and Taylor Schilling play Alex and Emily, a seemingly happily married couple who've just moved from Seattle to Los Angeles. Between Emily's (unspecified) high-pressure job and Alex's housebound duties caring for their young son R.J. (R.J. Hermes), the 30-somethings are worried they won't make new friends - until, as if by magic, Jason Schwartzman's Kurt enters the picture. A boisterous, aggressively affable presence with a son R.J.'s age, Kurt hugs Alex and Emily within the first three minutes of their playground introduction, and invites the L.A. transplants to "pizza night" at his place, where the three of them, their boys, and Kurt's wife (Judith Godrèche's Charlotte) can all get better acquainted. Taken aback but admittedly curious, Alex and Emily accept the invite, and show up at Kurt's and Charlotte's luxurious digs with cheap wine and wide-eyed hope. Dinner's a hit. The kids adore one another. Kurt convinces his guests to let R.J. crash in his son's room while the adults continue the party downstairs. And then things start getting weird.
Without giving away every detail of the weirdness, that's about it for The Overnight's plot, and 80-minute movies really don't need more. But what happens - and some freaky things do - is less important than the faces of Scott and Schilling, who view, and occasionally participate in, the increasingly bizarre goings-on with combined looks of confusion, panic, and occasional euphoria. When Charlotte absentmindedly places a lingering hand on Alex's knee while her husband tucks the kids in for bed, you laugh at the leery eye contact shared by our protagonists: "Is this the kind of party we've signed up for?" But as the night goes on, and as the pair gets thrown further and further from their middle-class comfort zone, Scott and Schilling begin to perform slapstick wonders solely through their expressions. Booze, drugs, skinny-dipping, breast-pump infomercials, erotic (or not-so-much) art, dubious massage therapy, potential partner-swapping - Alex and Emily take it all in with deliciously high-comic amazement, and Scott's complex reactions, in particular, keep you guessing whether Alex wants to high-tail it home or move in with his hosts at his earliest opportunity. (Orange Is the New Black has trained us not to fear so much for Schilling's characters - Emily can probably handle herself fine - but you do find yourself giddily dreading Alex's loss of innocence.)
Brice's digitally shot indie lists Duplass Brothers Productions as one of its production companies, and sadly, it looks like a Duplass-brothers movie, with dim lighting, frequently grainy focus, and jittery handheld shots suggesting that cinematographer John Gulesarian was suffering from the hiccups. Plus, for an outing whose poster blurb proclaims it "A Contender for Funniest Film of the Year!", it's not that funny, mostly because it isn't meant to be. The leads' slack-jawed reactions are priceless, yes, and Schwartzman and Godrèche are entertaining oddballs. But there's built-in poignancy and sadness behind even the most outré flourishes, and long scenes appear designed to take the hilarity out of potentially hilarious situations, as when the joke behind Kurt's intimidating endowment and Alex's lack thereof is deconstructed with such thoroughness that the movie practically morphs into a three-hankie male weepie about bathing-suit-area self-consciousness. (I've got nothing against modesty, but this sequence would've definitely played better if Scott and Schwartzman weren't shown dangling such distractingly phony genital prosthetics. The damned things look orange, which should certainly be of more concern to the men than whether they're of an appropriate size.)
Yet while the occasional teetering into dramatic terrain may not be great for the film's momentum, it appears good for the cast, and most especially for Scott, who finds enormous diversity within Alex's many shades of incredulity. And while you may leave feeling relieved that you didn't have to spend 12 hours in their company the way The Overnight's characters did, 80 minutes, in the end, seems perfectly reasonable.
A series of busier-than-usual and road-trip weekends kept me away from Iowa City's FilmScene since mid-May, causing me to miss such intriguing titles as Slow West, Merchants of Doubt, and the Norwegian comedy A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, which might be the most intriguing title in the history of cinema. It was, consequently, a treat to return for The Overnight, and an even bigger treat to begin my Tuesday double-feature with director Crystal Moselle's The Wolfpack, a fascinating, moving documentary that's in its last two days of area release. If you're a film buff and you've got the time and inclination, I urge you to catch Moselle's doc tonight or tomorrow, or to at least remember its name once it hits home video. Movies, we can probably all admit, are sometimes powerful enough to change lives. In the case of The Wolfpack's subjects, the power of movies maybe saved a few.
Those subjects are the six brothers of the New York City family the Angulos, who - living with parents Oscar and Susanne and baby sister Visnu - were all but physically forced to stay in their cramped Manhattan apartment and, throughout their upbringing, not leave the premises. (One of the teenage boys reveals that one year they ventured outside nine times, one year they went outside once, and one year not at all.) Home-schooled and under the thumb of their seemingly paranoid control-freak father, the boys' only creative outlet lay in the movies - hundreds upon hundreds of DVDs and videotapes that the siblings would watch repeatedly and then, transcribing the dialogue in notebooks, act out for their amusement. (As many of their reenactments were preserved on home video, Moselle also turns these efforts into our amusement, and it must be said that the guys do some spectacular channeling of Tim Roth and Steve Buscemi in Reservoir Dogs, and John Travolta and Harvey Keitel in Pulp Fiction.) But while this material may sound too excruciatingly sad for words, the great shock of The Wolfpack lies in just how upbeat and hopeful it is.
Though their upbringing may be unfathomable, the young men don't appear damaged; they laugh easily, and laugh a lot, and are endlessly imaginative, and their home appears to be one filled with love, if occasional regret for the experiences they've been denied. But at roughly the film's halfway point, you begin to realize that Moselle's story of figurative escape through the movies is actually one of literal escape. Beginning with the eldest brother Bhagavan's tentative walks around the block - the first of which, we're told, led to hospitalization, as he chose to walk around in the guise of Halloween's Michael Myers - the Angulo sibs begin exploring the outside world. And once they do, it's clear by their radiant happiness that they won't be turning back. We see them take their first subway ride and swim on the Coney Island beach and race through an apple orchard, and every one of these sequences exudes the breathtaking thrill of discovery; movies prepped them for what "real life" was like, and it turns out to be even more glorious than they hoped. (Which I guess was destined to happen if your favorite movies include nihilist wonders directed by Quentin Tarantino.) The Wolfpack has its share of heart-wrenching interviews, but its overall mood is one of profound joy, and I can't think of the last nonfiction work that boasted a moment as soul-shakingly uplifting as the boys' collective exhilaration upon leaving The Fighter - the first movie they've ever seen on the big-screen. "My money is gonna go to David O. Russell and Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale!" shouts a grinning Bhagavan to Moselle's camera. "That's so exciting! I played that guy in The Dark Knight!"