two rom-coms diverged in the forest, and I took the one less mediocre: Before We Go and Night Owls
I’m going to bury the lede. Because Night Owls is one of the best things I’ve seen in the last few years, but the movies stand in sharper relief when you start with Chris Evan’s directorial debut. Both are two-hander indie flicks I watched on Netflix. Both lean more dramedy than comedy. Both star two strangers meeting in the night. But which would you rather meet-cute?
Before We Go – Chris Evans and Alice Eve fade into the night
Before We Go has been crushed by critics. Poor Evans. He’s wrested control from Robert Downey Jr. as the chiseled face of the premiere franchise in the Marvel juggernaut, but he clearly has bigger filmmaking aspirations. Trumpet busking in Grand Central Station, he witnesses a harried, crying Alice Eve. She’s missed the 1:30 train and desperately needs to get back to Boston, but her purse with all her money and credit cards have been stolen. He tries to play the hero with borderline unwholesome enthusiasm.
What follows is hijinks crossed and criss-crossed across New York. They pretend to be a two-person band. Criminals are accosted, old flames burn, and relationships are faked. It’s cliches on top of cliches in a cliche cake, but the movie rests on the considerable charisma laurels of its leads. Evans played handsome earnestness better as the shield-bearer, but his charms still overcome a script that relies on his romantic desperation. Has he looked in a mirror lately? C’mon. Eve is similarly hamstrung by her part, playing an initially frosty cipher, the mystery of why she’s running slowly revealed in halting steps.
It all sounds cheerfully chummy, but the performances are shot with a great deal more melancholy. Director Evans does some solid work, leaning hard on the indie music montage at Grand Central and everything in glittering night pleasantries, but New York is lost in the translation. It demands texture when it gets the fairy tale sanding and planing. Same for the characters’ personal problems, which come out of a pre-mixed cake batter box of un-fleshed-out exes and dead dreams. Before We Go is not as terrible as people say, but then with rom-coms, I tend to grade on a curve.
Ron Bass (Oscar-winner with Rain Man) and a writing team put together a paint-by-the-numbers script riddled with contrivances. No one’s phone ever works and apparently buses don’t exist for half the movie. Its grace notes and callbacks (especially with pretend time-travel) stutter and stumble until a semi-intriguing end. If you like glossy, forgettable rom-coms with non sequitur names and I do, Before We Go is a solid way to fill 90 minutes on a night with no plans.
Night Owls – a should-be star-maker for the sleep-deprived
Night Owls is Silver Linings Playbook without the Oscars and without the publicity. It’s an $800 bottle of red spiked with vinegar. It’s a movie for people who like talking movies and people who like good movies. I started watching at 1:30 AM with the full intention of previewing the first few minutes, sucked in by another insidious Netflix recommendation. But any time you mix Adam Pally and a tarte tatin’s worth of 100% freshness on Rotten Tomatoes, I’m going to take notice. The writer’s workshop conceit is that Pally is a man who unknowingly has a one-nighter with his boss’s mistress. He has to keep her awake all night after she downs a bottle of Xanax, which is fitting because it annoyingly kept me up watching as well.
Pally has made a career out of playing gold-hearted frat boys on TV. He stumbled and lumbered and killed it as unstereotypically gay Max in the brief and wondrous life of Happy Endings. His onscreen chemistry with Mindy Kaling was once the sturdiest thing about a rickety The Mindy Project. Here as Kevin he’s a little more dialed back, a little more nerdishly, nebbishly kind. Occasionally he’ll struggle on the flourish of a dramatic delivery, recessing back inside, but he’s a warm, generous performer, nothing but body hair and a hopeful heart.
And then Rosa Salazar literally wakes up from the drugs and begins a tidal force assault, a performance with such caustic ferocity you can feel it beating off the screen. Inhabiting the promiscuous “floozy”-type Madeline with disgusted relish, Salazar slaps, crackles, and pops with curveball putdowns that leave a real imprint. How on Earth is she languishing when Margot Robbie keeps getting forced upon us? She’s also a consummate physical actress, handling the slapstick with Pally as easily as in the quieter moments, every awkward gesticulation of her wrists and puffing of her cheeks as she thinks. You can see the glee in her big eyes as she hurts Kevin with each cynical, verbal twist of the knife and then the insta-regret. She doesn’t want to hurt her target as much as she thinks she does.
Inevitably, the two fall for each other as they fight and drink and argue and share secrets over the course of the night. Their chemistry is all combustible heat and spontaneous conversation. Once it gets past the initial unlikeability of its characters, the script (Seth Goldsmith and Charles Hood) unspools with measured momentum, parceling out the nimble dialogue, the revelations, building Kevin and Madeline layer by demented trifle cake layer–half puckeringly sour and half subtly sweet with suicide, hero worship, gender lines, class lines, sports corruption, and fantasy novels thrown into the mix.
Eventually the film loses some steam as night goes down to day and other characters arrive for the climax. For a bottle episode this good, this incredibly built on a foundation of comedic and dramatic isolation, you want them to resolve their arc just the two of them. The loneliness, the night, they shouldn’t be wasted because they’re characters expressively, confidently conveyed. Writer-Director Charles Hood never keeps the camera static in his sophomore run: the characters dipping in and out of the framing and the foreground. Cinematographer Adrian Correia plays the angles and highlights their physicality while slow-tracking the quiet conversations of the night. Kevin Blumenfeld’s soundtrack is an exercise in minimalist restraint. This talented team is riffing hard on Linklater’s Before Sunrise, I just want a better sunrise.
Like that indie franchise (if there’s such a thing), Salazar’s stated she’d be happy to play these characters for years. For a rom-com this fiercely, ferociously engrossing, I’d lose another night’s sleep even if no one even falls in love with me at the end. These two leads should be stars. They hold their bruised and beating hearts in each other’s hands and ours with them.