Executive produced by Mark and Jay Duplass, Patrick Brice’s The Overnight has a lot in common with the brothers’ HBO dramedy Togetherness. Both explore the existential angst of being no longer young but not quite middle-aged yet, as experienced by a small cohort of middle- and upper-middle-class white Angelenos. And both create a sometimes cringe-inducing facsimile of the unpredictability of real life by mixing comic awkwardness with genuine tenderness and vulnerability, often in the same moment.
The Overnight’s insecure stay-at-home dad, Alex (Adam Scott), and savvy, nurturing working mom, Emily (Taylor Schilling), are feeling their way through their mid 30s. They may not be quite aware that their capacity for spontaneous joy and their sexual spark are slowly suffocating under the routines of a years-old marriage and the responsibilities of parenthood, but they feel something missing, Alex in particular fretting about the difficulty of making friends in a new place (they just moved to Los Angeles). Then the quirky but irresistible Kurt (Jason Schwartzman, whose air of impish innocence makes the character seem a little dangerous, but ultimately trustworthy) spots them in a park where their children and his are playing and invites them to dinner. His invitation feels magical, an answer to the couple’s unspoken prayer. And, like a wish granted by a genie, it opens the door to a new and better world.
As Emily and Alex cautiously cut loose with Kurt and his wife, Charlotte (Judith Godrèche), in their new friends’ gorgeous, warmly lit house, it feels as if the four are on an exhilarating first date. Their zigzag journey from self-protective posing to mutual trust and attraction runs through some pretty rocky territory, including the way Kurt first activates and then conquers Alex’s self-consciousness about his penis, which he’s always thought of as too small, and the audience is left to wonder, along with Emily, whether it’s wonderful or creepy that their hosts keep sharing the kinds of sights and thoughts that are usually kept private. That unsettling uncertainty gives emotional texture and depth to what could have been just another wish-fulfillment fantasy for frustrated thirtysomethings.
Ben Palmer’s Man Up’s Lake Bell and Simon Pegg are charming and well matched as a couple who fall in love over the course of an action-packed day, but a corny, heavy-handed script makes it much harder than it ought to be to care whether they wind up together. Quick-paced, quippy dialogue aims for screwball sass and sizzle but doesn’t quite hit the mark. Other attempts at humor are no more successful. The mild jabs thrown at a facile self-help book called 7 Billion People and You are too soft to leave a mark—but then, maybe self-help isn’t the right target for this film. The burnished aphorisms with which Bell’s Nancy and Pegg’s Jack keep telling each other off or giving each other encouragement have the polished facility of self-help, like when Nancy tells Jack that he’s just fallen apart like a jigsaw puzzle and needs to put himself together. “Start at the corners,” she says, “and look for the blue bits.”
The physical humor limps too. Chase scenes tend to be clumsy and overlong, like the one in which Jack runs down blocks of city streets trailed by everyone who happened to be at a party he briefly crashed, a gag that lacks both internal logic (why would everyone at that party chase after this stranger?) and visual inventiveness (after the second or third cut to the chase, you may start to wonder when they’re going to get there already). And the slapstick bit where Nancy sets fire to Jack’s ex-wife’s boyfriend’s arm and then puts it out with a fire extinguisher that makes a mess of them both is more painful than funny. Like The Overnight, Man Up is reminiscent of TV, but in all the wrong ways. Starting at an engagement party and ending at an anniversary party to underscore its main characters’ sense of romantic frustration, and setting several pivotal scenes in public bathrooms for reasons we can only guess at, this strenuous romantic comedy has the sweaty desperation of a slack sitcom.
The Tribeca Film Festival runs from April 15—26.