I decided to start Day 3 at the Sundance Film Festival with a movie that was on my radar but wasn’t something I really expected much from, but after seeing a few comedy duds, I felt I couldn’t go wrong with a comedy starring Adam Scott and Jason Schwartzman… and I was right!
The Overnight, one of many films at this year’s Sundance produced by Mark and Jay Duplass, is an impressive pull-few-punches raunchy sex comedy from Patrick Brice, whose thriller Creep debuted at South by Southwest last year. I never saw it but I have to imagine this is a very different beast.
Adam Scott and Taylor Schilling play Alex and Emily, a young couple who have just moved to L.A. with their young son (who interrupts their lovemaking in the opening scene) and whom haven’t made any friends yet. While in the park, they meet Jason Schwartzman’s Kurt, an eccentric but affable character with his own son, who offers an invite for the couple to come over for pizza night. There, they meet Kurt’s French wife Charlotte (Judith Godrèche), gorgeous and immediately flirtatious, setting things up for a night none of them will forget filled with drugs, alcohol, many intimate confessions and more.
Knowing the premise of the movie going into it actually makes it even funnier as you realize Kurt and Charlotte are setting things up for a night of spousal swapping with their new friends. For some reason, this seems to me like something that happens in L.A. a lot. Brice uses that premise to create some of the funniest fish-out-of-water laughs as the repressed couple, who have their own sexual issues, warm up to the eccentric behavior of their hosts.
Although The Overnight is a sex comedy, there isn’t a lot of graphic sex as much as there is full frontal nudity, and that’s mainly used as an added source for awkward humor. For instance, when Kurt finally lets down his boxers for a dip in the pool, showing off what he’s working with, it makes Alex feel even more inferior about his own genitals. And Brice creates so much build-up for Alex to finally let go of his own inhibitions that it adds even more laughs.
Adam Scott has never been better at playing the awkward straight man as he does in this, but if there’s any doubt Jason Schwartzman is the funniest actor working in movies right now, it will be dismissed by the eccentric character he creates. Maybe it’s because I haven’t watched “Orange is the New Black” that I did not realize how funny Schilling was, but her reactions to some of the things that happen over the course of 80 minutes are just as funny as the situation.
You’re often left wondering where things are going to go and if they will take things all the way. Just as you’re allowed a moment to sigh a relief, they do go there, but it’s again used to offer a climactic joke that will literally have you in tears.
What’s great about The Overnight is that it’s not filled with raunch for the sake of being raunchy. Instead, it deals with serious marital issues in a funny way, and it feels very much like the kind of movie that we might see from the Duplasses as directors.
Brice is so good at directing comedy, I would not even be remotely surprised if the studios come a-calling for him to direct bigger comedies. The amount of laughs he’s able to generate from such a simple idea and on such a small budget makes one think that he’s due for a breakout.
The first of the Eccles premieres was also the best, which was Mississippi Grind, the third movie from directors Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden to premiere at Sundance following Half Nelson and Sugar. It’s also the third movie about gambling I’ve seen in the last two months, which put even more pressure on it to try and be different.
Rather than being about a loner, this is essentially a buddy road comedy about two very different types of gambler who meet at a poker table in Iowa and decide to travel across the country to New Orleans for a high stakes poker match. Ryan Reynolds’ Curtis is a grifter who travels the country looking for the best action when he meets Ben Mendelsohn’s Gerry and is impressed by his skills at figuring out his opponent’s tell. Gerry’s gambling problem has put him into debt so when Curtis suggests they go to New Orleans, playing tournaments along the way, it gives Gerry a chance to get away from his debtors.
During a stop in St. Louis, Curtis reconnects with Simone, an escort from his past, played by Sienna Miller in another amazing role in which she’s unrecognizable. Although he won’t admit it, Curtis does have deeper feelings for Simone than the other women he loves and leaves during his travels.
More than anything else, this is a great showcase for the hugely talented Mendelsohn, not only because he’s one of the leads but also because he’s playing a generally nice guy, the type of lovable loser we normally might see played by Steve Buscemi. Mendelsohn fills this character with such enthusiastic optimism, you can’t help but root for him in every game he enters despite his many flaws. Mendelsohn has such great chemistry with Reynolds, who isn’t making quite as much of a departure in this role, and their burgeoning friendship drives the film’s energy more than anything. That said, the film’s a bit of a slowburner though it does tend to grow on you due to how well these characters bounce off each other.
Boden and Fleck really seem more in their element than one might expect considering how different this is from their previous films, using blues music and landmark shots to establish each of the settings to which the travel. They also spend less time showing characters playing poker as some might expect, also not doing the usual thing of showing each of the player’s hold cards, which allows you to feel as if you’re in Gerry’s shoes during his tougher calls.
Once the friends arrive in New Orleans, there’s only a couple ways for the story to go, but just as things seem to be heading towards a downer ending, Boden and Fleck instead keep things going until they’re able to give a suitably satisfying end to Gerry’s journey.
It’s so nice to have this fantastic filmmaking couple back and regaining their stride with such a different film for them, but more than anything, Mississippi Grind is commendable for finally giving Mendelsohn the proper spotlight to shine.
It’s been ten years since Noah Baumbach brought The Squid and the Whale to Sundance and he’s back this year with Mistress America, his latest collaboration with partner Greta Gerwig, a very different movie from their previous collaboration Frances Ha.
One major difference is that Greta isn’t the central character as much as a prominent co-lead along with Lola Kirke, who plays Tracy, an 18-year-old lit student trying to contend with the travails of college. Tracy’s mother is marrying the father of Gerwig’s Brooke and they decide to meet up in New York so they can each get acquainted with their new stepsister. Brooke likes the idea of having a young protégé she can teach about life, but she is the most pretentious and self-centered person imaginable you can imagine with a grating personality and no interest in anything anyone has to say, including Tracy, who sees her as fodder for her fiction writing. At the same time, Tracy has befriended a nerdy fellow student (Matthew Shear) who leaves her crushed when he turns around and gets a new girlfriend.
Movies about unredeemable characters can be fun, but Baumbach’s bread and butter continues to be bitter, mean and often angry people, a tradition continued into Mistress America. Unlike Frances Ha, which seemed so much more like Grega Gerwig’s thing, but also a film that challenged Baumbach to elevate his game and do something different, it’s going back to all his old standbys as he starts to drag her down to his own nonsense. (It’s also odd he’d make a movie about Gerwig’s character trying to coexist with younger people so soon after Baumbach’s own While We’re Young, which dealt with a middle-aged couple trying to keep up with a younger couple they meet.)
The characters in the film never feel particularly authentic, because their carefully-crafted dialogue is spouted at a machine gun rate, often making it hard to keep up. There are also times when the films delve into Wes Anderson territory, trying to throw as many odd characters into a room as possible to see how they’ll interact.
This mostly materializes when Brooke drives Tracy and two of her college classmates out to Connecticut to pitch a rich old boyfriend to give her money for a planned restaurant and things start to get more and more outlandish. On the other hand, this final act allows for other fun supporting characters to come to the forefront, making up for the fact that the relationship between the two sisters has been played out. Because so much happens in such a short space of time, it’s shocking when you get to the hour mark and there’s still a lot more of the movie to go.
One aspect I did dig is the fun ‘80s style synth-pop score by Dean Wareham (who plays one of those supporting roles mentioned) and Britta Phillips of Luna, but I’d honestly rather just buy their record and enjoy it without all that chattering over it.
Don’t get me wrong. Mistress America isn’t a complete dud and maybe 40-50% of the dialogue feels genuinely clever, but it also feels like Baumbach/Gerwig came up with the simplest of concepts and then threw in as many ideas as possible rather than trying to do things that might elevate and enhance the overall story.
I ended my third day the same way it began, with a sex comedy starring Adam Scott, although he plays a much smaller and a very different role in Leslye Headland’s Sleeping with Other People, her follow-up to the 2012 Sundance hit Bachelorette, than his great turn in The Overnight.
But we’ll get back to Scott. Headland’s latest comedy stars Jason Sudeikis and Alison Brie as Jake and Laney, two college students who meet and have their first sexual encounter, basically taking each other’s virginities, then twenty years later reunite to try to figure out why everything since then has gone wrong in their relationships.
That high-concept premise is used by Headland to try to create an updated When Harry Met Sally for a modern New York setting, but it gets bogged down in the fact that it never knows if it wants to be that female-friendly rom-com or something raunchier for the fellas. It’s obviously meant as a date movie for couples, but I had similar problems with Bachelorette, where it just feels like Headland is trying to make a movie so deliberately mainstream to appeal to everyone, that it feels unfocused.
The opening sequence between Sudeikis and Brie is just fine, but it’s obvious that Brie is stretching from what she normal does while Sudeikis is just doing his usual smart aleck with a comeback to everything as he makes lots of quips and pop culture references. It’s as if Headland wrote this knowing that Sudeikis would be playing Jake.
Once we get to the present day, we watch each of their relationships dissolve just in time for them to reconnect, something that seems just a little coincidental, making it that much harder to believe their platonic friendship. And then there’s Adam Scott, who plays another guy from Laney and Jake’s school who she’s been having a fling with behind all of her boyfriends since college. She’s also fallen in love with him to the point of being obsessed making it harder to have a healthy relationship with anyone else. This is a different type of role for Scott because while he’s once again a completely unlikeable prick, there’s no humor in the jerk he plays.
There are a few good moments like watching Alison Brie teaching a bunch of kids to dance while high on ecstasy and Sudeikis’ instructions for more pleasurable masturbation, but even that feels like it’s trying too hard to win over an audience. It always feels like Headland is trying to be edgy but she never goes far enough, softening her own attempts at raunchy humor to the point of making the overall film feel homogenized and diluted.
Whereas The Overnight is about the characters, Sleeping with other People is clearly more about situations, a series of vignettes with very little cohesion to make it feel like it can possibly pay off in the end. Just as things seem to be heading towards an obvious resolution, the film takes a very dark turn before going right back to where you probably have expected it to go from the very beginning. It’s the biggest copout in a movie full of them.
Maybe it’s just me, but like Baumbach, I mostly find Headland’s usual schtick annoying and unoriginal just as her use of New York City “as a character” doesn’t offer anything unique to the genre. Maybe with more time and movies under Headland’s belt, I’ll warm up to her writing and directing style, but Sleeping with Other People doesn’t really offer anything unique or special that we haven’t seen before, basically squandering its talented stars.