Night Owls Dir. Charles Hood

[Filmbuff; 2015]

Styles: romantic dramedy
Others: The Apartment, The Graduate, Before Sunrise

Billy Wilder’s 1960 film The Apartment is one of my favorite movies ever. Not only does it contain the Wilder wit and gags his work is best known for, but it also struggles with some darkness and ultimately becomes the tale of lovers who are a bit more than just slightly damaged. It remains one of my favorites because of how it deals with topics like love, depression, suicide, and the decisions we make in life. Therefore, I was pleasantly surprised by the fact that Night Owls not only feels like a modern re-telling of the Wilder classic, but that I didn’t mind its various similarities in subject matter and tone. What could have easily ended with me simply dismissing the film and recommending The Apartment in its place, instead made me appreciate that 1960 film a bit more while truly enjoying its modern descendant. By infusing Night Owls with humanity, character development, humor, and honesty, director Charles Hood has created a very entertaining story of dashed dreams and the feet of clay upon which all our ideals stand. The ending feels a bit too much of a cop out, which drags down the preceding film’s merits, but it also still has that air of “well what the fuck do we do now?” which has worked so well in other movies like The Apartment and The Graduate. Rather than simply resting on references to these (truthfully, superior) films, Hood (who co-wrote with Seth Goldsmith) has created an original piece of art that is charming and coasts along thanks to the excellent chemistry of its two stars.

Kevin (Adam Pally) is devout to his job working for the local university’s football team. One night for celebration he meets up with Madeline (Rosa Salazar), and the two head back to her house for a one-night stand. Except, it’s not her house, and Madeline has more plans than just to seduce Kevin, but instead is embroiling him in her scheme to get back at a lover who spurned her. Kevin has to babysit Madeline for the rest of the night while the two discuss their lives and their choices, waiting for someone to come and clean up the mess of the situation and hopefully restore order to their lives. But it’s possible that once something — like trust — is broken, it can never be the same way again.

It’s easy to see this film working as a play because it all centers around one location, with only a few instances of going to other destinations or introducing other characters. For the most part, though, this film is largely about the dynamics between Kevin and Madeline as the two spar with each other throughout the night, trying to wait out the clock for the house’s owner to arrive and set things straight. And while there’s not a lot done visually that’s interesting with the palette, mainly just establishing shots and a couple shots of the main characters, it never feels like this would be better suited for the stage; merely that it would be easy to adapt it to that medium should some college or high school drama department deem to convert it. Beyond the restraints of character and location, it also feels like a play because of the intimacy that Hood is able to generate in his film through his two leads.

Make no mistake: this film would live or die on the chemistry and performances of Kevin and Madeline. Not only because they are the only people onscreen for the majority of the film, but because they both go through various changes in the course of the night that it has to be believable. Luckily Pally and Salazar are up to the task and bring a great deal of warmth, humanity, and ugliness to their roles. They are called upon to be hilarious one moment, screwed up the next, and incredibly vulnerable a scene or two later. Yet the actors handle this transition naturally and it feels like it’s a change that is occurring through their conversations and confessions they are making (a credit to the script as well as to the actors). Pally is often hilarious in this film, being the befuddled man who is in way over his head, and plays the role comically without ever becoming a cartoon. Similarly, Salazar’s turn as the jilted lover could’ve been a one-note caricature of heartbreak but instead reveals layers to her hurt and to her own outlook on the life she’s chosen to lead.

It’s a meet-ugly sort of film that occasionally veers into some clichéd territory (especially towards the ending), but mostly it works because the tone is kept consistent, the characters are notably human and interesting, and, while it dips its toe into contrivance, it never does so to an egregious amount. What should have been the story of two ships passing in the night becomes one of two ships colliding and forever altering each other’s trajectory, all while being funny and engaging. While the film may exist for me in the shadow of The Apartment, that doesn’t mean it should be overlooked; instead it’s well worth seeking out and enjoying on its own merits.

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