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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

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.

MPAA: rated PG-13 for sexual and crude content throughout, language, some violence and a drug reference

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine
  • kyle

    its sad how many potentially good movies are ruined by the directors or crippled by its screenwriters how do these people get jobs?

  • Rob

    I saw it last night and thought it was absolutely fantastic–witty, satirically dead-on, hilarious, and with some of the best comedic timing I’ve seen on screen in a long time. JMHO.

  • MaryAnn

    What did you find satirical, Rob?

  • Rob

    Just to name a few examples, the depiction of the book club, the real estate scene (very sharp recession joke, I thought…and even the quick shot of Claire’s real estate agent photo was a great visual parody), the maitre d’ at Claw, the “actual” Tripplehorns’ argument…

  • The funniest thing I’ve read in connection to this movie came from a local film critic who couldn’t resist comparing Steve Carrell and Tina Fey to Astaire and Rogers for reasons that make no sense for me. I mean Carrell and Fey aren’t bad at what they do but they aren’t as memorable at comedy as Astaire and Rogers were at dancing and comedy. (Though I must confess I’d like to see Carrell and Fey try to prove me wrong by doing their version of Astaire and Rogers’ “I Won’t Dance” number. Because if even the Muppets could try it, what’s their excuse?;-)

    Seriously, I must confess that Carrell and Fey can be likable people on screen and yet I often watch The Office in spite of Carrell’s character, not because of it, and the best thing I could say about Fey’s character is that I have yet to see her play a role that was really bad but then I have yet to see her play a role that really wants to make me see her play another role.

    I generally like smart, funny women but I find myself at best indifferent to Ms. Fey and seeing Carrell hijack a recent TO episode to insert a not so subtle plug for this movie did little to endear this film to me.

    I would like to hope that this film proves me wrong but so far the reviews I’ve been reading have not been too impressed.

  • Lisa

    I think they are hugely likable and even if this movie is the pits I might just go and see it for their chemistry.

    I’d love to see them do a movie together where they could really fly. Sounds like a missed opportunity.

  • Drave

    The movie itself, I would rate a C-. However, Carrell and Fey are so freaking adorable and likable, they almost manage to raise the experience an entire grade. Each. I left this movie very happy, not because I felt I had seen a good movie, but because I found their performances so enthralling. Seriously, I would watch a TV show that was nothing but these two characters eating dinner together each week.

  • AsimovLives

    Tina Fey is what Sarah Palin wants to be when she grows up.

  • marshall

    My wife and I saw this movie over the weekend and we loved it. I think as the parents of two young kids there was much in the movie we could relate to.

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