Sex, as it is popularly seen in the media, is an abstract idea. Weighed down by puritanical censors, distorted by ego, and passed from one work to another like an international game of Telephone, cinematic sex has become increasingly divorced from the real thing. It’s a crude simulacrum of intimacy: a thing that speaks to a saccharine, family-friendly ideal, but is rarely seen or heard in any genuine terms.
Compare the way in which your average romance, soap-opera, or sitcom approaches sex with the less-trodden approaches of films like Radley Metzger’s The Image, Frederico Fellini’s Casanova, or even the conversational frankness of a classic Woody Allen film like Annie Hall, and our cultural sanitisation of sex soon becomes apparent. Any frank discussion of sex is shocking, a break in the facade of the idealised, normative sex-lives fed to us daily.
I think this is why sexual comedies are so often derided. Films like 2014’s Sex Tape, or the Sex and the City films, only play up to the dull, performative sex sold to us in third-rate sitcoms. Despite ostensibly being films about sex, they end up saying nothing about the act itself: the ways in which it informs our social lives, or the quirks and anxieties that surround our lives behind closed doors. Too many comedies seem to consist of people talking in implausible terms about increasingly outlandish and cartoonish sexual encounters, ultimately speaking to nobody beyond their own characters.
Thankfully The Overnight, directed and written by Patrick Brice and released in 2015, is an example of a sex comedy done right. An uplifting—or depending on your disposition, cautionary—tale about a couple placed outside of their comfort zone, The Overnight traces the sexploits of a group of friends as they get together for a night of drinks and find themselves wrestling with the idea of a foursome. Needless to say, things don’t quite go according to plan.
The Overnight leads a plain-spoken, but effective, disruption of sex comedy tropes and morals. With a naturalistic approach to dialogue and blocking almost reminiscent of a mumblecore film, Brice’s film combines the erudite neuroticism of a Woody Allen feature with the instant-gratification, cartoonish exploits of a more traditional sex comedy, and benefits wholly from the exchange. So yes, there are dick jokes, but they’re told with a serving of flop-sweat and disappointment that feels like a refreshing break from the norm.
The film monopolizes on the neuroses of its core cast to such an extent that it could play well as a horror. The bulk of the film’s comedy comes from a mounting sense of dread as the lead couple, the disillusioned and inexperienced Alex and Emily, gradually realise what they’ve set themselves up for. Alex is weighed down—entirely figuratively—by concerns about the size of his penis, while Emily is wholly unsatisfied by the constraints of a vanilla sex life (tellingly, the first scene of the film is an awkward missionary fumble between the two). Upon moving from the staid East to the liberated West, they are soon introduced to Kurt and Charlotte, both liberal artists and producers, and find themselves taken aback by their open approach towards sex.
Most of the film is framed within an escalating comedy in which the increasingly bare and inebriated couples drift closer towards the awkward inevitable. As time passes, drinks are spilled, dicks are measured, and clothes become increasingly sparse, all with a careful attention to the dissolution of Alex and Emily’s sensibilities.
Although the comparison may initially seem strange, the film shares a number of similarities with Roman Polanski’s Carnage, particularly in its stage-like qualities. With the exception of a handful of exterior scenes, the majority of the film could comfortably have taken place on a stage, and it places the focus wholly on the characters and the nuances of their interactions.
Like Polanski’s film (and the stage play that preceded it), The Overnight delights in schadenfreude. All four of its characters are staged as types, allowing the audience to identify themselves along their four-point spectrum of sexual confidence and laugh vicariously at themselves through another. Just like in Carnage, nobody comes out unscathed; this is a film that preys on insecurities and desires with a reckless abandon.
Crucially, the whole thing rarely feels forced or overwrought. For example, the joke that Kurt’s artistic career consists of portraits of people’s exposed anuses is never lingered on for those who might not appreciate it as a non-sequitur, nor is it taken to the sophomoric extremes common in gross-out sexual comedies like Van Wilder or later American Pie sequels. Here, sex and nudity aren’t dirty words, and as a result, are never used as punch lines unto themselves
Similarly, there’s a lot of uncommon (and some might argue, immoral) ground covered here, and although the film presents it in full view, it doesn’t preach. The mellow tone and the characters’ conversational approach to the taboo always tends towards laughter, rather than education, and the film rarely slows down as a result. The Overnight isn’t so much an attack on popular conceptions of sex and sexuality as it is a prolonged tickle-fight with them. The believable, endearing awkwardness of its sexual encounters is always put first.
Ultimately, this is The Overnight’s greatest achievement: authenticity. There’s a scene at the film’s halfway point in which Emily and Charlotte, having left the house on a booze-run, take a diversion to a massage parlour. At Charlotte’s behest, Emily watches through a peephole as Charlotte demonstrates her – ahem – unseen self with a client of the parlour. For the most part, I think it’s an apt summary of the film as a whole. By taking the no-holds-barred premise of a standard sex comedy and placing it within a more intimate setting, The Overnight provides its viewer with an alluring peephole through which to view the secret lives of others, and by extension, maybe a little glimpse into their own.
The things that take place in The Overnight—least of all its portrayals of nudity— are a shock to a system stifled by staid sex comedies. Both conceptually and practically, it runs counter to a lot of media-driven conceptions about monogamy, sexuality, and image, yet the stripped-back, voyeuristic aesthetic helps absolve it of any overt moralising. There’s always something inherently believable, and perhaps more importantly, fascinating about the whole affair. It’s often painfully awkward, sure, but you’ll find it hard to look away.