Date Night is a clunky, disjointed beast of a movie. I can't think of another film that was so artistically flaccid and unmotivated while containing a set of stars that so consistently and repeatedly bent over backwards to avoid appearing bored or disinterested. The screenplay by Josh Klausner and direction by Shawn Levy are as pedestrian and faceless as you could possibly imagine -- it's like someone created the movie using an automatic "action-comedy" template provided by the studio -- but Steve Carell and Tina Fey have signed onto make this film, damn it, and they're going to do the best they can.
Phil and Claire Foster (Carell and Fey) are an average American couple, suffering from post-childbirth malaise. It's not that they don't like each other, they're just both constantly steamrolled by the daily rat race until the romantic peak of each week is potato skins and cheap food at a nearby chain restaurant, during which they make fun of couples at other tables. Neither seems particularly perturbed until, on one of Claire's book club nights, Brad and Haley Sullivan (Mark Ruffalo and Kristen Wiig, respectively) confide one-on-one to Phil and Claire that they're splitting up. "We had turned into awesome roommates," Brad sighs. The next week, each separately motivated by their own worries and neuroses, Phil and Claire decide to skip the usual place and head into the city. There, in a moment of recklessness, Phil steals a no-show's reservation, only to find out that the couple in question is part of an elaborate scheme involving missing flash drives and dangerous mobsters, and by stealing their seats, they've inadvertently brought all of the heat onto their own heads.
As far as setups for major motion pictures go, I suppose it's a somewhat inspired idea (whittled down to its most basic, least-interesting elements, sure, but still somewhat inspired), but I can barely imagine what Klausner did to earn his screenwriting credit. Someone (possibly Joel Silver) once said that "the Indians storm the fort" could be anywhere from five seconds to fifty minutes of screen time, and I imagine a final draft filled with pages that read "The book club discusses this week's novel (funny)" and "Phil and Claire escape (action)". Nearly every scene in the entire movie feels like a loosely-sketched setup where someone thought casting would save the day.
And in a way, I suppose they were right. TV viewers (and, to a lesser extent, filmgoers) should already be well aware that Carell and Fey are both naturally talented, and their skill at improvisation elevates everything by a few notches. The pair riff on everything from farting to Cyndi Lauper ("any time of the day"), and they do it well, even during special effects nonsense involving two cars hooked together or dramatic moments about the future of their relationship. Mark Wahlberg also makes a hilarious extended cameo as a tech expert, and he matches Carell and Fey beat for beat, while James Franco has a less-funny-but-still-entertaining bit as a tattooed criminal who looks and sounds like the evil twin brother of Franco's Pineapple Express character, and has a remarkable profession. Character actor William Fichtner earns a mention for embodying the best example of on-screen sleaziness (as far as a PG-13 comedy goes*, anyway) in a single scene.
Still, the disconnect between the movie and the actors permeates every scene, and even the good jokes feel a tad less edgy because there's no getting around that the structure, everything the comedy is hanging on, is empty and weak. Carell and Fey may be funny "in" the movie, but the film doesn't actually support their comedy in any way, outside of providing a setting. A better screenplay would have offered them some building blocks to go off of, character traits to develop (leaving drawers open doesn't count). I remember worrying that Get Smart wouldn't bother giving Carell anything to do but a boring riff on the "bumbling spy" routine paired with his usual schtick, but I was pleasantly surprised by the final product, which had well-defined roles for the whole cast and played them off each other well. Date Night barely offers the boring riff -- it's just schtick, ad nauseum.
The movie ends with a reel of bloopers and alternate takes of Carell and Fey's ad-libbing. I like seeing gag reels on DVDs, but it's been a long time since I've seen a reel in the credits of the movie, and while it's funny (as good riffing usually is), it feels a little desperate, like a last-ditch ploy to remind the audience they had a good time. For me, it only emphasizes the unspoken truth: whatever Date Night amounts to as a comedy has a lot more to do with the individual pieces of the puzzle than it does with intended outcome.
*Like everything these days, this film pushes the boundaries of the PG-13 in various ways. I feel like there was a time when the "whacked off" joke wouldn't have been able to make it into the movie, much less the greenband trailer, but what do I know.
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