Because Hollywood is a silly place with a hierarchy that falsely insists that movies are superior to TV, we get movies like “Date Night.”
Steve Carell and Tina Fey, talented producer-writer-stars on two of the most decorated sitcoms in recent television history, put in their seasons of working on Emmy-winning comedies on NBC and then they spend their downtime collecting paychecks and trying to add sparkle to an ultra-conventional script from one of the guys who wrote “Shrek the Third.”
Watching Carell and Fey in the new film “Date Night” is like seeing a bizarre missing chapter from Lars von Trier’s “The Five Obstructions.” These two tremendously smart and funny talents seem to be saying, “OK. We’ll spot you a flat and plot-lite script from Josh Klausner and predictably flat and lackluster direcion from Shawn Levy and we’ll *still* find ways of making you laugh.”
And the admirable thing is that despite throwing these creative roadblocks in front of themselves, Carell and Fey frequently succeed. Nothing in “Date Night” is even slightly memorable, but there are transitory laughs laughs aplenty courtesy of the two stars and several all-too-fleeting cameos.
[More on “Date Night” after the break…]
Fey and Carell are the Fosters, the most generic married couple in the most generic suburb in New Jersey. They have irrelevant jobs — he’s an accountant, but it doesn’t matter, and she’s a realtor, which barely matters — and an irrelevant number of kids and they set aside regular date nights to go out to the same restaurant, where they get the same food and return home for sex which we can only assume is indifferent. They’re not a bickering couple. They’re not estranged or contemplating divorce. They love each other in a way that’s sweet, boring and genuine. For around 15 minutes, the movie’s about real people and both stars are delivering natural and unforced performances. Naturally, that doesn’t last long.
Instead, the Fosters decide to go into The Big City for dinner at a Fancy Restaurant. For one night, they want to step outside the confines of their boring lives. In no time, thanks to a case of mistaken identity and reservation theft, they’re being chased around Manhattan by a couple bad guys (Common and Jimmi Simpson) who want to kill them, going from one wacky situation to the next. With almost no room for transition, they become blockbuster action stars.
Why is any of this happening? Klausner’s script almost literally doesn’t care. You get the feeling that they could have staged the wackiness and then inserted a line or two of dialogue in post-production to explain who the bad guys worked for and what was on the flash drive that serves as the plot’s main MacGuffin. Because there are no real stakes, no real menace and no real goal for our heroes, “Date Night” chugs along for its 88 minutes and then basically calls it quits with an abrupt and unengaging ending that couldn’t have taken long to plot out.
But that’s OK.
The plot hinges only on the Fosters’ ability to interact with crazed Manhattanites played by recognizable stars. Mark Wahlberg pops up as a security expert and reminds us that he’s has been working out, but also that he’s much more effective when he’s in on the joke (“The Departed,” “I Heart Huckabees”) than when he’s playing all-too-straight in a movie that’s a joke (“The Happening,” “The Lovely Bones”). Mila Kunis and James Franco pop up and steal one scene as a couple who are like the funhouse mirror reflection of the Fosters. Oscar nominee Taraji P. Henson is the only stunt guest star who gets to appear in more than one location, but that doesn’t mean she gets to have a character or serve a purpose in the narrative. She’s there because somebody saw “Midnight Run” and remembered that the only thing more fun than a chase film is a triangulated chase film.
“Midnight Run” is one of several ’80s landmarks that “Date Night” seems eager to emulate (or ’70s, if you want to go back to something like “The Out-of-Towners”). It’s much more indebted to the urban one-nighter genre, films of variable quality ranging from “Blind Date” or “Into the Night” at one end or “Adventures in Babysitting” or “After Hours” at the other.
“After Hours,” one of my favorite “I have no desire to win Oscars” Scorsese films, was all about a very specific vision of mid-80s New York dystopia and how it impacted one very nervous wannabe Yuppie. Both Griffin Dunne’s character and all of the people he meets in “After Hours” are a reflection of the city at a very particular moment in its history. In contrast, “Date Night” couldn’t have less to do with New York City in 2010. It’s just about the least authentic looking New York City film I’ve ever seen and learning that Levy and company actually shot on location astounded me. “Date Night” is a 20th Century Fox film and the New York City street set on the Fox Lot on Pico would have delivered identical value at lower cost. The location is an afterthought and the relationship between the different characters and the city is similarly unengaged.
As he proved on the lifeless “Pink Panther” remake, Levy has almost no sense of how to stage a set piece for either optimal comedy or optimal action. “Date Night” has one fresh sequence, a car chase through NYC featuring two cars that are welded together front-to-front. I’m not sure it’s an inspired idea, but it’s definitely not one I’ve seen before and thanks to expert mugging from J.B. Smoove, the scene gets some of the biggest laughs in the movie, even though it’s poorly shot, poorly edited and ultimately barely relates to the plot. It’s been two weeks since I saw “Date Night” and that’s the only action beat I remember.
Actually, I also remember the movie’s climactic striptease set piece, because it proves to be everything that’s both right and wrong with Levy’s work. It’s wrong because it’s a scene that plays out flaccidly and takes far too much screentime for the laughs it delivers. It’s right because it indicates, very clearly, the reason actors continue to work with Levy. He’s a director who’s obviously willing to give his stars nearly endless latitude.
With that room, Fey and Carell are able to find laughs even in stagnant conversations that attempt to weave monologuing on the nature of romance and marriage into madcap cases. They’re able to sell lame punchlines that all feel like introductory set-ups to third act payoffs that never occur. They’re likable enough that you only occasionally resent that movie is making you spent time with the Fosters rather than the more colorful supporting characters. Fey and Carell both have WGA Awards for comedy and I don’t doubt that every single chuckle that I got from the script came from something they added themselves.
Both Fey and Carell’s NBC comedies are having slightly down seasons. One could easily argue that “The Office” and “30 Rock” have been usurped by shows like “Modern Family” or “Parks & Recreation” or “Community” for the title of Network TV’s Funniest Comedy. Even in down seasons, a typical Thursday 9 p.m. block of “The Office” and “30 Rock” delivers better writing, tighter direction and more laughs than 88 minutes of “Date Night.”
I’ll return to my opening point: Yes, Fey and Carell are able to do a salvage job on “Date Night,” but for them this was like the Quickfire Challenge on last night’s “Top Chef Masters,” which forced the chefs to make a delicious dish out of ingredients found at a gas station. Sure, it’s nice they can do it, but wouldn’t you rather seem them both use better ingredients?
“Date Night” opens on Friday, April 9.