Film Review: All Nighter

A winning performance by J.K. Simmons almost saves Gavin Wiesen’s lightweight, heavy-handed L.A. romp.
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Guys in movies bonding over Bob Seger songs might seem to have gone the way of orangutan sidekicks, but director Gavin Wiesen’s All Nighter dusts off that oldie-but-goodie and a few other ’80s-night moves in this genial, ambling buddy-comedy that’s running short of at least one comedian. Resembling a young Jack Black, though harnessing little of that guitar-picking livewire’s electricity, Emile Hirsch stars as Martin, a humble banjo player who’s roused from a brokenhearted stupor by the sudden intrusion of his ex-girlfriend’s estranged dad, Frank, played by Oscar-winner J.K. Simmons, as tart and unflappable as ever.

Simmons’ pitch-perfect deadpan could use a higher-pitched comic foil here than Hirsch’s low-fi sad-sack, as Frank, a cool, imposing figure in his sharp suit, presses mousy Martin into aiding his search around Los Angeles for his daughter, Ginnie (Analeigh Tipton). Despite, or due to the fact, that Martin’s a mess since he and Ginnie broke up, he agrees to ride shotgun and guide the very grown-up businessman Frank from one lead to another through an amusingly boho and Millennial L.A. of doulas, yoga studios and the under- and oddly employed. “Is this whole neighborhood stoned?” Frank asks incredulously.

Screenwriter Seth Owen’s script is none-too-subtle in its generational humor. While Frank’s a red meat-eating, red wine-swilling man’s man, who can discreetly seduce a lady on the fly, Martin’s a salad-eating son of an acupuncturist and an environmental activist, prone to gooey New Male pronouncements like “These beets are really well-steamed.” In other words, the twee is ladled on thick, especially with the various stoners, flakes and kooks Martin and Frank encounter as their search grows more hectic, continuing into the night with still no sign of Ginnie.

The movie references John Ford’s classic western The Searchers, but it traffics more in the lane of indie farces like The Daytrippers and Flirting with Disaster—only this romp peters out of madcap momentum rounding the final turn. Composer Alec Puro keeps the guitar and (naturally) banjo-heavy score bouncing along with the action, but spotty lensing throughout robs the film of some of its snap. However, the comedy does land a few sharp jabs at L.A. and contemporary culture in general, shrewdly structuring its mystery around the fact that none of the people identified as Ginnie’s friends or co-workers bear much expectation of actually seeing her in the flesh on any given day. Basically, everyone’s fine with keeping up with everyone else via up-to-the-second social media, rather than face-to-face interaction—a hilarious or sad state of affairs, depending on one’s point of view.

Of the teeming cast of Echo Park and WeHo oddballs who pop up along the way, several, like Taran Killam and Kristen Schaal’s bickering weirdo couple, Gary and Roberta, wear out their welcome. Xosha Roquemore, as Ginnie’s party-girl, sort-of friend Meghan, and Stephanie Allynne, in just one scene as a less-than-zen yoga practicer, are more comedically on-target, delivering the watchable verve that’s seriously lacking in Hirsch’s central performance. Hirsch dials down his charisma and quickness to suit a timid character who finds himself too stuck in his heartbreak to realize he’s sinking in emotional quicksand. It’s a thin line for an actor, as the movie also needs him to hint at the fire burning beneath the milquetoast. Bud Cort’s Harold in Harold & Maude, for example, is one of the great mopers of movie history, but Cort’s performance still leapt off the screen. Martin might gain an audience’s sympathy, but not necessarily their esteem.

Simmons more successfully maintains a light comic touch, while locating a genuine and distinct character in Frank, a self-acknowledged neglectful father, with every reason for wanting to change his relationship with his only child. Not only does he garner this escapade’s biggest laughs, he supplies its most heartfelt dramatic moments. Wiesen navigates this odd couple from one goofy drug- or alcohol-addled confrontation to another, and though the film doesn’t get around to saying anything new about balancing work and family, or passion and purpose, at least Simmons’ performance makes the journey worthwhile.

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