Normally I’d reserve a separate review per film title. However the similarities between Patrick Brice’s THE OVERNIGHT and Onur Tukel’s APPLESAUCE are enough to make for some compelling comparisons. Both are comedies touching upon male-female compatibility and the effects of even contemplating switching up partners. Both display the consequences of such thoughts and/or actions and whether the films’ leads are up for growing from their experiences. Ego and personal identity are important factors. Heck, both films feature a sight gag involving a specific part of the male anatomy. They also share a certain pedigree, having been developed through the lower budgeted film communities either directly or latently associated with Mumblecore (THE OVERNIGHT was produced by one of the movements pioneers, sometimes actor/director Mark Duplass). The low fi cinematic approach (usually shot on video) is supposed to evoke a certain verisimilitude. The almost improvised nature of the actors performances are engineered to elicit empathy from an audience. Even if we find these characters “unlikable,” we feel their foibles are recognizable enough so that we’re willing to sit with them all the way through. And it’s not an easy task. This idea of filling your comedy with unsympathetic characters goes all the way back to the antics of W.C. Fields. But it was Woody Allen who first perfected that art of empathy. We might think that ANNIE HALL’s Alvy Singer is a neurotic, narcissistic jerk but he has those qualities that are immediately recognizable. You can see elements of your best friend, a loved one, a brother or sister or even your worst enemy. You may even see aspects of yourself in Alvy Singer. And it is due to that possibility we somehow allow ourselves to laugh at his flaws as they have this air of truth about them. It can also be a cringingly awkward experience to behold in that holding up a mirror to oneself kind of way. Which sometimes is also the point.
Even television shows like SEINFELD and both the UK and US versions of THE OFFICE have capitalized on this approach. And their success rests or falls on the empathy factor: just how relatable are their actions being made whether we like these characters or not. But without that, all you’re left with is a story featuring a bunch of a-holes running around being a-holes. And so you risk losing your audience as a result. So that simple character development tactic? Empathy? That is what separates THE OVERNIGHT from APPLESAUCE.
Of the two, APPLESAUCE should be viewed as the underdog. It has a predominantly unknown cast. While Onur Tukel’s SUMMER OF BLOOD gained positive buzz during last year’s TriBeCa Film Festival, he isn’t as high profile as any of the talent assembled for OVERNIGHT. Also, APPLESAUCE was most likely produced on a much lower budget. So being the kind of film appreciator I am, one would think I’d tip my hat in favor of Onur Tukel because, well, we should all want to support newish talent as they rise within the ranks of a competitive film industry. Unfortunately, APPLESAUCE is the inferior film. Ostensibly one might argue that it’s a different film than OVERNIGHT therefore they shouldn’t be compared at all. But it’s not that much different. Plot wise, it positions itself as a “black comedy.” After attempting to air the worst thing he has ever done on a radio show, self involved New Yorker Ron (played by Tukel himself) finds himself caught up in a chain reaction of unfolding, farcical events involving betrayed spouses and severed body parts. And what we witness is not unlike an extended episode of CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM, where some pretty unsympathetic human beings do some selfish and really nasty things to each other. But this is the problem: whereas in something like CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM there is a recognizable, even relatable factor initiating a humorous moment or gag; in APPLESAUCE there is nothing to relate to at all. The characters that populate Tukel’s film don’t ring true. It’s as if Tukel had been watching HBO’s GIRLS and decided its creative success rested on stupid characters doing selfish things. What he hasn’t acknowledged are the relatable factors motivating those selfish things. Unlikable these characters may be. But at least they’re believable.
For example, the movie starts off with Ron making that aforementioned phone call to the radio station. It turns out that he has decided to do so minutes before he and his wife are about to meet friends for dinner. It makes no sense why a character would time doing such a secretive thing when preemption is obviously imminent. And the only reason it appears to be scripted this way is to plant a comedic moment where Ron’s wife is demanding he get off the phone while he is on the air (much to the exasperation of the radio host played by indie standby Dylan Baker). It’s just… odd. It doesn’t ring true. Yeah, that word again. APPLESAUCE is rife with moments where Tukel is more interested in presenting a punch line than in what motivates the gag. It’s frustrating because Tukel certainly seems like a smart guy. There are times when the film is actually quite funny, so the talent is there for displaying humor. But if we cannot relate to why that character made the decision to do what he did at a particular moment… then he just comes off as stupid. And this happens throughout the film.
What compounds the issue is Tukel’s need to bring in some post 9/11 commentary to the equation which, well, doesn’t ring true either in this particular day and age (Sorry! I used that word again. Sensing a pattern here). And I should know because I live in New York. I was here when it all happened. I saw the Twin Towers collapse outside my office window knowing full well that my father was trapped down there somewhere. But this is the thing and in hindsight it is unfortunate… The psychological mindset that came about after 9/11 simply isn’t as prevalent as it was even ten years ago. While it’s tragic in how that ship has sailed (how quickly we move on with our lives and forget) the fact of the matter is that ship has sailed. So Tukel’s references to this tragic event smack of reaching for an intellectual hook that will give his project “deep meaning.” Which seems out of place for a film that features some of the most cartoonishly conceived police officers I have ever seen (Ron himself refers to them as “Mutt & Jeff.” And yet they’d appear just as over the top in the Sunday Funnies let alone a dark comedy set in NYC).
APPLESAUCE seems to derive a lot of inspiration from Woody Allen what with the jazz soundtrack, the same kind of opening titles, and the neurotic and quirky yet seemingly self centered New Yorkers that populate his films. Add to that the recurring theme of dissatisfaction within relationships as the primary husband and wife teams wind up cheating on each other with each other by the time the end credits roll. Yet the outcome resulting from these dalliances does not feel earned. I understand why Tukel chose to end the film the way he did. But he presents no justifiable, mitigating factors leading us to believe the conclusion (and Ron’s fate) is inevitable. Unlike the solution to APPLESAUCE’s core mystery – as to who is sending Ron these severed body parts and why – because that seemed pretty obvious to me the moment a certain character appeared just after Ron revealed his worst ever secret to his circle of friends.
On the other hand, the humor in THE OVERNIGHT not only feels earned, it also aids in progressing the development of each character’s arc. Alex and Emily have just moved to Los Angeles with their toddler in tow. Alex is the stay at home dad while Emily has the day job with the career ambition to match. They do not know anyone, yet. And they want to make the effort to find new friends for themselves and their son. Enter Kurt, a charming extrovert who finds their son playing with his at the local park. He welcomes Alex and Emily to the neighborhood by inviting them to his household for dinner. They’re happy to oblige.
There are central mysteries to both OVERNIGHT and APPLESAUCE. With OVERNIGHT, the question becomes what are Kurt’s intensions with Alex and Emily? It starts innocently enough. Two parents – rounded off by Kurt’s French wife Charlotte – immediately enjoy the experience of getting acquainted under very welcoming circumstances. But odd things start to unfold. Hints that Kurt and Charlotte are willing to step past personal boundaries, that they indeed have something more permissive in mind. Little kinks start to pick at some hidden neurosis especially when it comes to Adam Scott’s Alex. Kurt doesn’t just seem to be a fantastic guy, he seems to be a fantastically successful guy what with a beautiful house and a beautiful wife. And being the stay at home dad in his relationship, feelings of emasculation start to bubble over for Alex which leads to one of its most hilarious (and surprisingly affecting) moments when Kurt and Alex are literally comparing the size of their dicks. And at one point, it no longer becomes a question of what extracurricular party plans do Kurt-Charlotte have in store. The real surprise involves just who wants to do what with whom.
Without giving too much away, THE OVERNIGHT is a 21st Century reworking of Paul Mazursky’s BOB & CAROL & TED & ALICE. But while that film attempted to poke fun at the free love sensibilities of the late 1960s, THE OVERNIGHT defers to our current vibe of sexual permissiveness whether it comes to legalizing gay marriage or having become apathetic towards sexually frank depictions on television and ads. When it is revealed what source Kurt derives his income from, it acts as both a punch line and a comment on just how accepted certain areas of deviancy have become thanks to the oversaturation of porn and what-have-you made available through the internet. Although the characters actions (and responses to such actions) sometimes come off as insensitive or too self involved, they do feel sincere. You understand where each character is coming from whether they are the instigator or the reactor. And the subtlest punch line involves Kurt and Charlotte. As played by Jason Schwartzman and Judith Godrèche, it turns out they really are a nice couple simply searching for human connection outside of their orbit. Whereas Alex and Emily (played by ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK’s Taylor Schilling) may not be as “square” as initially presupposed. The cast are uniformly excellent, particularly Godrèche. She invests her character with a knowing, quiet sadness that betrays her trophy wife appearance.
THE OVERNIGHT is above all else hilarious. But the humor is rooted in a truth (last time I’ll use that word. I promise) missing from APPLESAUCE. Left field, farcical hijinks abound in both films. Yet in APPLESAUCE we couldn’t care less what happens to Ron, his wife or the collection of jerks that revolve around his world. That’s the key difference between the two films. Because in THE OVERNIGHT, we really want Alex & Emily & Kurt & Charlotte to develop their new found friendship into something longstanding.