Failures of Nerve: “While We’re Young” and “The Overnight”

By Jonathan AlexanderSeptember 1, 2015

Failures of Nerve: “While We’re Young” and “The Overnight”

MARRIAGE ISN’T just for two people anymore.

At least that seems to be the sensibility explored in two recent and sometimes daring comedies, While We’re Young and The Overnight. These generally engaging and often hysterically funny movies begin with married couples, a little bit dissatisfied, each looking for something different. While We’re Young concerns a middle-aged couple courted by and becoming intimately (if not sexually) involved with a younger couple, while The Overnight moves us to think about swinging and hints at polyamory as a lifestyle. Both films invite viewers to gawk a bit, even poke some fun at urban hipster youth, even as they attempt to appeal to that viewership. But they also push us into somewhat unexpected and often unexplored intimate territory.

In particular, the movies push at the boundaries of what marriage is and speak to a simple truth: two people cannot be everything to one another. We need others. Or we are at least interested in others, even if not always sexually. Marital complexity isn’t new to American cinema, and many dramas play out the difficulties of legalized coupledom. I was traumatized by Kramer vs. Kramer as a kid, wondering what would happen if my parents divorced, and I thought Fatal Attraction a dire warning in my young adulthood about the dangers of cheating. And more recently, Fifty Shades of Grey, however tepidly, offered its own spin on different kinds of “contractual” relations. But to gesture to the complexities of intimacy — especially the opening up of a relationship to include others — strikes me as a provocative, and needed, trend for American comedies about heterosexuals, which have normally shown us how couples get past their 50 first dates to find romantic bliss.

In fact, as excited as I am (as a queer man) about this summer’s Supreme Court decision that expands marriage rights nationwide to lesbians and gays, I’m almost more intrigued by the questioning of marriage offered by While We’re Young and The Overnight. Although both focus on heterosexual couples, the films smartly engage the attractions, both homosocial and even homoerotic, of engaging intimately people outside the couple. While We’re Young meditates on intergenerational relationships and misunderstandings. And I must admit, as someone who has worked as a college teacher for over 20 years and is now solidly middle-aged, I found While We’re Young a bit painfully close to my life at times. I’ve had some wonderful friendships with former students, little brothers and sisters who have energized and reinvigorated me professionally and personally — as well as one such friendship with a young man that, while not at all predatory like the one depicted in While We’re Young, ended with an inability to manage expectations and projections. Shit happens. Similarly, the odd threesomes and foursomes of my 20s comprised my own personal version of The Overnight. Now queerly married (yay marriage equality), the one thing I know about marriage is that my husband, as wonderful as he is, is a huge part of my life — but a part. We both need others, even if not necessarily sexually. And childless, we have learned there are many ways to make a family, not just biologically.

Along such lines, many viewers will find much to relate to in these films. In Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young, middle-aged Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia Srebnick (Naomi Watts) seem to have a good if somewhat staid life in New York, Josh having hit something of a dead end in his documentary film career. His big and baggy film about a leftist intellectual is overlong and going nowhere. Enter a young couple, Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby Massey (Amanda Seyfried). Jamie presents himself to Josh after one of the latter’s classes, claiming to be a fan of his work. The couples go out to dinner, and the older pair is clearly charmed by the younger duo’s seemingly creative approach to life. The foursome participate, for instance, in a drug-infused ayahuasca ceremony, projectile vomiting their way to supposedly insight-bearing hallucinations. Jamie and Cornelia make out a little bit in this extended scene, but it’s all in good fun (for now).

In subsequent hangouts, we see and share with Josh and Cornelia the discreet charms of the young — their retro sensibilities (playing actual board games, not computer games; buying vinyl, not MP3s) and art- and pleasure-focused life. They’re invigorating, as the young often are. And as Jamie is an aspiring filmmaker, Josh has a chance to play at being a mentor to someone who seems genuinely interested in his (otherwise forgotten) films. Something of a bromance blooms between the two, and we wonder where this all will lead, particularly as Josh begins to adopt the attire and manners of the younger man, while also constantly picking up the check for dinners and drinks out.

On the other side of the continent, in Patrick Brice’s The Overnight, Alex (Adam Scott) and Emily (Taylor Schilling) are young marrieds with child who have just moved to Los Angeles, lamenting that they not only don’t have any friends in the area but also are unsure how, in their post-college 20s, to go about making friends. Enter Kurt (Jason Schwartzman) and Charlotte (Judith Godrèche), a flashy couple to the rescue. Kurt meets Adam and Emily in a park after discovering that their young sons have hit it off and enjoy playing together. Kurt invites the new-to-town couple over, and a lovely dinner turns into an overnight of skinny-dipping, pot-smoking, and soul-baring bonding. Kurt and Charlotte are the wealthier versions of Jamie and Darby in While We’re Young, but no less arty; Kurt has a studio where he paints pictures of sphincters. We also see a bit of early bromance as the overly endowed Kurt helps Alex deal with his feeling of penile inadequacy. The presence of cocks on screen (however prosthetic) signals an increasing sexualization of the evening, which ramps up when Charlotte takes Emily on a booze run that turns into a trip to a massage parlor so Emily can peep through a hole while Charlotte gives an impromptu hand job. We wonder where this adult slumber party might be headed.

What’s particularly compelling about these films is the frankness with which male-male intimacies are treated. Josh and Jamie’s intergenerational bromance acts in a surrogate father/son or big bro/little bro fashion for the two, but it’s not without its complexity. We see the two in deep conversation with one another, often over meals on “man dates.” In a twist, Josh comes to envy Jamie’s creativity, the mentoring relationship flipping a bit, and the portrayal of their friendship risks some complexity as they seem both intimate and competitive at the same time — perhaps an inevitable combination in male bonding in American capitalist society. There’s nothing overtly sexual here, but it’s clear that Josh needs the younger man, just as much as Jamie needs Josh’s mentoring and connections. In The Overnight, Kurt helps Alex “come out” about how much he doesn’t like his body (especially his penis size). At one point, the wives stumble across Kurt photographing Alex sexily wriggling his butt, and we wonder with them what exactly guys actually do when they are alone together. But they are getting to know one another, and Kurt’s ease in his own body translates into a jock-like encouragement to Alex, as though he’s coaching his player to get back in the game of self-confidence and strut his stuff. Kurt engineers a “show” for the ladies so Alex can show off his manhood. These are intimate moments between men. And curiously, they come after all of the men are married. In watching these interactions, I couldn’t help but think of I Love You, Man, the 2009 film that tracked the emergence of the bromance into mainstream culture. But in that film, the bromance occurs before the marriage — in fact, it must occur before the marriage; we get the sense that our hero, Peter, has to pass through the gauntlet of learning how to relate to a buddy before he can mature into a coupled relationship with a woman. The heterosexual path is maturing from relations with your friends to your spouse. While We’re Young and The Overnight flip the script, showing the power and potential of male-male intimacies within a heterosexual marriage. I can’t help but wonder what’s changed in the past six years, if not perhaps greater queer visibility prompting greater comfort with a wider variety of male-male intimacies.

Both films are played for lots of laughs, especially The Overnight, which can be hysterical, even if at times uncomfortably so for some audiences with its frank portrayal of straight guys trying to figure out how to flirt with one another. And they both nicely foreground, without too much recourse to stereotype, the attractions of young hipster culture, however achingly white and privileged. But each movie also turns a bit serious, as comedies do, before resolving the tensions created by the couples’ newfound intimacies. In While We’re Young, we learn that Jamie has essentially engineered his meeting with Josh to get closer to Josh’s famous father-in-law, a leading documentarian of his generation. Jamie has ambitions, and he’s not beyond using others — and Josh’s (platonic midlife crisis) interest in him — to get what he wants. In fact, Jamie’s fabrications are extraordinary. He’s concocted not only his friendship with Josh but the subject matter of his own documentary — an irony given the “truth-telling” ethos implicit in documentary work. But no one but Josh seems bothered by this. And when Josh confronts Jamie about both his professional and personal deceptions — a somewhat ludicrous if still pathos-driven declaration of hurt: “I loved you,” followed by Jamie’s “I really liked you” — we are left wondering where the truth in any relationship might be. To borrow from a filmic metaphor, such truths are perhaps mostly the projections we cast on each other, needing others to perform roles in our different dramas. Josh is certainly left wondering what needs he tried to fill through his friendship with the younger man.

Meanwhile, The Overnight ramps up to fever pitch, and just as the foursome is about to call it a night, we learn that Kurt and Charlotte are trying to spice up their now-defunct sex life by swinging a bit, with Kurt particularly interested in Alex. All this comes after Alex and Emily have a movingly painful and honest conversation in the bathroom about how, as committed as they are to one another, they nonetheless think of others, sexually and intimately. A little bit of truth goes a long way to mutual understanding. And just as the party is about to break up, all four wind up in bed together, starting with a group hug leading to the boys kissing one another. The silent soundtrack (a little bit of fleshly slurping aside) is comically interrupted by the two little boys bursting into the bedroom wanting breakfast. Alex and Emily flee, and the night, now morning, ends in a hungover walk of shame, but still funny.

While We’re Young and The Overnight move us toward ways of talking about such needs and possibilities, such necessary extramarital relations. But traditionally, comedies end in marriage. Conflicts are resolved, love secured, and all is now right with the world, at least for the time being. But what’s often most interesting in a comedy is less the expected resolution than the complications encountered along the way — complications that can suggest possibilities of unhappy endings, but also alternative paths forsaken. With both While We’re Young and The Overnight, I couldn’t help but think of those forsaken paths of desire, and I ultimately regretted the easy ends both films make of tough loves. Predictably, but still sadly, the films exhibit a failure of nerve to follow through in helping us imagine capacious alternatives, new trajectories for sustainable and nurturing relations with others. The Overnight ends with the two couples running into each other in the park where Kurt first met Alex and Emily; the meeting, initially awkward, quickly turns bathetic as the two couples comment about how their adventuresome evening led them to reaffirm their commitments to one another as spouses. Kurt and Charlotte are even in therapy. At the end of While We’re Young, we see Josh and Cornelia about to catch a plane a year or so later, having had their own child in the interim. The answer for them is simple: get your own kid, not someone else’s.

Curiously, children haunt both films. In The Overnight they sleep in the background, waiting to remind the adults to stop playing around, while having a child is the ultimate answer to the problem of growing older and feeling old before your time in While We’re Young. Indeed, what I find most challenging about both films is the shadowy presence of kids, who are often asleep in both movies. They may slumber, but they are stark calls to remember what a “normal” marriage is: the serious business of child production. That’s a lot of pressure for two people, who often have multiple and divergent interests. Perhaps, after all, child rearing is too much to ask of just two people — but neither film goes there, even if each falls back on the presence of children to assure the return to normalcy and the happy ending of (therapized) marital bliss. And the heteronormative is reaffirmed.

I’m not surprised, ultimately, at the end of either film, and I often chide myself for expecting too much from these corporately produced entertainments, however “indie” they are. For both films, the moral is clear: reaffirm the marriage, hunker down with your spouse, and make your own damn family. At a time when the right to marry has just been extended in this country, we have a unique opportunity to think collectively about what a marriage is — and perhaps about how much pressure we have put on the institution of marriage. If anything, we might read these two films as anxious questionings about the limits of marriage to satisfy our needs, both for sexual intimacy and for family. We’re letting more kinds of people get married now — a good thing, surely — but perhaps these films are generating some (nervous?) laughter about the limits of marriage itself. And while the comedic genre might traditionally end with valuing the bonds of marriage, these funny, poignant films at least pose interesting thought experiments about the inability of marriage to fulfill all our needs, much less address our curiosities. The fact that these films are showing us heterosexual couples confronting the boundaries of their relationships is telling. Perhaps the queering of marriage might offer new possibilities for thinking together such questions, for entertaining more interesting thought experiments. Perhaps next year’s films might offer less of a failure of nerve.


Jonathan Alexander teaches at UC Irvine, where he is the Director of the Center for Excellence in Writing and Communication.

LARB Contributor

Jonathan Alexander is the author, co-author, or co-editor of 22 books, including the Creep trilogy, which consists of Creep: A Life, A Theory, An Apology (finalist for a Lambda Literary Award, 2017); Bullied: The Story of an Abuse (2021); and Dear Queer Self: An Experiment in Memoir (2022). Other recent books include the memoir Stroke Book: The Diary of a Blindspot (2021) and the scholarly work Writing and Desire: Queer Ways of Composing (2023). Alexander is Chancellor’s Professor of English at the University of California, Irvine. 


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!