Gross-out comedies have had a few moments in the sun, the latest of which being in the late 90s. Movies like American Pie and There’s Something About Mary were huge with audiences, made tons of money, and spawned an avalanche of imitators who seemed to be in a body-function-fueled arms race regarding who could be bigger, crasser, and more wrong. Audiences are bound to get desensitized to gags like this eventually though. No matter no strange the thing the wiener gets stuck in, how comically large the tuft of pubic hair gets, or how inventively someone is led to unwittingly interacting with semen, if enough of these gross-out movies come out in a short enough period of time, it’s not going to be long before the target audience starts to feel like they’ve seen it all.
In recent years we’ve definitely passed this point, and filmmakers are having a tough time creating comedies that shock the mainstream enough to earn strong word of mouth. Recently, Ted 2 underperformed at the box office, and even though it contained a symphony of offensive language and a waterfall of strange semen, you don’t really hear anyone talking about how crazy any of the things they saw in it are. There’s one form of comedy similar to these cringe-inducing gross-out gags that never gets old if you do it right though—the comedy of manners—that may be the answer to filmmakers’ prayers. These movies require an establishing of social norms, a character whose purpose is to obliviously break these norms, and a character whose purpose is to be made uncomfortable every time they’re confronted by another taboo. If the rule-breaker is committed enough to get you to believe in the authenticity of their transgressions and the put-upon party is vulnerable enough to get you to squirm alongside the transgressions, then the viewer can’t help but give in to a fit of bodily contortions and nervous laughter. Comedy of manners movies are evergreen, because the laughs come from character instead of from shock, and when they’re done well enough they’re able to make audiences just as uncomfortable as any sex or poop joke ever written.
Writer/director Patrick Brice (who did similar character-based cringe with last year’s Creep, though more in the genre of horror) has gone back to the classic comedy of manners formula to make his new movie, The Overnight, and his efforts have resulted in the funniest, most outrageous movie that’s come out yet this year. The film stars Adam Scott and Taylor Schilling as a straight-laced couple who have just moved to LA and are desperate to meet new friends, and Jason Schwartzman and Judith Godrèche as a Bohemian couple who invite them over for dinner and seem friendly at first, a little bit too friendly after a couple bottles of wine, and then… dear lord, they’re trying to seduce us into some sort of swingers’ orgy, aren’t they? The hosting couples’ antics properly build from curious, to uncomfortable, to transcendently outrageous, and Schwartzman and Godrèche are so straight-faced and genuine that they’re always able to keep you questioning their motives, while Scott and Schilling are so polite and pained in their efforts to navigate the social land mines put before them that you can’t help but empathize with them the whole way through, so you’re left with a movie that starts off funny enough and then gets funnier as it goes on—and at only 80 minutes, it’s able to get in, do it’s job, and get out while still leaving you wanting more. Too few movies are able to accomplish that these days, especially comedies.