Date Night (review)

Still in a Rut

There’s something just plain and basic nice — in a smartass, so-wonderfully-dorky-they’re-cool sort of way — about Tina Fey and Steve Carell, on their own in their separate projects as well as together in Date Night. They’re superbly appealing from the moment we meet them here, as a harried suburban New Jersey couple overwhelmed by their careers and their small rambunctious kids and the everyday routine of making sure life functions as it should. Their Phil and Claire Foster are obviously still crazy about each other and still capable of having fun together, but just as obviously, they’re in a rut.
There’s not much nice about a Shawn Levy movie, however. Not the junk he’s pummelled us with: The Pink Panther, Cheaper by the Dozen, Just Married… junk it’s actually an insult to junk to call junk. And so I was absolutely certain, after initially falling in love with the Fosters, that many, many somethings would invariably get thrown at me during the course of Date Night that would make me hate Phil and Claire and Carell and Fey. That this does not happen — that Carell (Get Smart, Horton Hears a Who!) and Fey (The Invention of Lying, Ponyo) manage to maintain their gosh-darn likeability through all that is to come — is the most surprising thing about this otherwise aggressively mediocre flick. It’s truly a feat on the part of our stars, considering the depressing caliber of the many, many somethings they are forced to contend with.

If Date Night is not terrible, then, it’s not Levy’s doing. Nor is it down to screenwriter Josh Klausner, the bulk of whose previous experience is contributing “additional material” — whatever that means — to the aggresively mediocre Shrek the Third. (Klausner is credited as a full screenwriter on the upcoming Shrek Forever After, and if what we get in Date Night is an indication of what he thinks is funny, we’re in trouble there.) The reason Date Night isn’t very good is because Klausner doesn’t know what kind of story he’s telling: is it a farce? a dramedy? In perhaps the most bizarre example of how confused the movie is about itself, he has the Fosters pull over during a zoom-zoom sportscar escape from gun-toting bad guys so they can have a calm, reasonable discussion about what they want out of their marriage. The scene is performed rather beautifully by Fey and Carell, and perhaps in a subtle drama about marital discontent, it would be perfect. Here, not only does it make no sense to postpone a life-and-death escape for a counseling session, but if they must, surely the adrenaline of the moment would turn it into something more passionate and screamy than what it is. (There are also accusations lobbed here that contradict what we’ve seen of their marriage earlier, but that’s a different problem.)

The whole movie is like that, a jumble of disconnected moments thrown together but never sitting well together — indeed, those moments never even seem to realize what they could be doing for one another. The mild-mannered Fosters are on the run from gun-toting bad guys because they had the bad luck to steal a reservation at a hot new Manhattan restaurant from the wrong other couple, resulting in an incidence of mistaken identity involving mobsters and crooked authority figures and a missing flash drive full of incriminating evidence… And yet Date Night is entirely missing any sense of how this jarring shift from the Fosters’ everyday monotony could be just the kick-start they need to rejuvenate their relationship. In a movie all about them and their relationship, we shouldn’t have to infer that this is the case: the movie should be oozing with the promise of the hottest sex they’ve had in years. But it isn’t. It’s not that the chemistry isn’t there — Fey and Carell are fantastic together. It’s that the screenwriter doesn’t understand the potential of his story and the director doesn’t see it.

There are some fun cameos — Kristen Wiig and Mark Ruffalo, and James Franco and Mila Kunis as very different couples from the Fosters who nevertheless represent other possibilities for them, and Mark Wahlberg as a security expert who helps out the Fosters: he plays a funny part so straight that it’s funnier than it deserves to be. But as merely additional disconnected moments, they’re deeply unsatisfying, because they hint at how much better Date Night could have been with just a tad more care and attention.

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