Sometimes the right casting for what is fundamentally a good idea can overcome a lot of obstacles, including a so-so script and blah direction. Date Night is kind of almost one of those times.
The movie stars 30 Rock's Tina Fey and The Office's Steve Carell, two of the more likable comedians on television. They play New Jersey suburbanites Claire and Phil Foster. Two jobs and two kids don't leave them much time for each other, so they have a standing appointment every Friday night to get a babysitter and go out. That, too, has become its own rigorous routine, and the boredom is getting overwhelming.
When two of their friends, a couple played by Mark Ruffalo and Kristen Wiig in the first of many, many cameos, tell them they are splitting up, Phil gets a little scared and decides to surprise Claire with a dinner in New York at a hip seafood restaurant. Not the best thing to do on the spur of the moment, and when it appears they won't get a table, Phil answers when someone else's reservation is called. Yet another rash decision that doesn't work out. Turns out the intended diners, the Tripplehorns, have been blackmailing a local mobster (Ray Liotta) and this is the night his thugs (rapper Common and the creepy Jimmi Simpson, a.k.a. Liam McPoyle on It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia) are going to try to collect the item in contention: a computer flash drive. Naturally, the Fosters are clueless, but a few lucky moves gets them away, and they are on the run.
What follows is one long night of trying to stay one step ahead of everything that is coming after them. The more the Fosters learn of their predicament, the more the danger escalates. Their many mishaps and adventures end up involving a police detective (Taraji P. Henson), an ex-military black-ops guy (Mark Wahlberg), and the real Tripplehorns, a couple of low-level criminals played with a particular sense of fun by James Franco and Mila Kunis. Remember what I said about all those cameos? There are also brief appearances by Leighton Meester (Gossip Girl), Ari Graynor (Whip It), J.B. Smoove (Curb Your Enthusiasm), and Daily Show performers Samantha Bee, Jason Jones, and Olivia Munn.
Someone once told me a rule: the more good people in a movie you've never heard of, the worse the movie is going to be. Date Night, then, must be balanced out by the fact that it was actually pretty high profile. It traded up to become well-known and bland. It's directed by Shawn Levy, who helmed the two Night at the Museum movies--so, you know, he loves cameos--and it was written by Josh Klausner, who was credited on the last two Shrek movies. On that alone, I wouldn't have had much hope for Date Night. The script is nicely constructed, and the plot is slick and polished, but there isn't much to it beyond that. Levy mostly knows where to place his camera, though the bigger action isn't really his forte. He seems intimidated by space, and often uses too much of it. There are lots of chases where the characters appear tiny on a wide-open screen. In another streetside scene, when Fey and Carell are trying to sort out what is going on after realizing the cops are in on the dirty deeds, Levy keeps jumping between different angles in a way that other directors would use to suggest that his heroes were being watched, but Levy does it for no apparent reason. You've got two great comic actors trading lines, and you keep cutting away to a shot taken from across the road?
For as uninspired as much as Date Night is, the movie gets by thanks to the talent of its two leads. Tina Fey and Steve Carell are extremely comfortable with one another, and they bring a warm levity to even the quietest scenes. As older actors, they understand how couples operation, and they make the notion of married routine work for them. Both play their same basic types, but tweaked enough to keep it interesting. Phil is less dim and more forward acting than most of Carell's characters, and Fey has traded pop culture nerdiness for a motherly nerdiness. She isn't good with complicated stories, and she gets things a little bit wrong, such as saying Will.i.am is the guy from "Fergie." This rapport is not only essential to the comedy, but it goes a long way to making the marital reconciliation that is on the way believable.
If I had to give Date Night one thing, it does have heart. Levy and Klausner take enough time to actually let Phil and Claire ruminate on their problems and discuss them, rather than just rushing to some easy, winking resolution. (Well, that's there, too, but still...) Unfortunately, I don't think that's enough to make up for the lack of excitement in the action sequences, or worse, the lack of big jokes. I only laughed out loud a couple of times, with the J.B. Smoove scenes being the only out-and-out funny sequence, something that Smoove should get all the credit for. His high-pitched delivery transforms an incidental role into something memorable.
Date Night would actually probably serve the purpose of being a good date movie. It's inoffensive enough so as not to cause any disagreements, and the absence of any real sticking power means you won't have to spend all night focusing on it instead of each other. It'd definitely make a decent rental for a cozy night in. In terms of memorable movies that are true keepers, both Carell and Fey have much better material out there, and I'd love to see them team up and try this again with a project that has a little more punch.
Fox has sent over their usual blue-backed promo disc for review, rather than the finished retail product, so I can't really judge how the picture looked. My copy has intermittent appearances of a Fox logo and often looks fuzzy and splotchy, something I would hope is not going to be carried over to the final version (it usually isn't). Some of the night scenes look weird, but I think that's a side-effect of Levy's lighting and maybe a little day-for-night shooting. It causes some of the late-night business to look fake. His rear projection for the backgrounds when the characters are in cars is also some of the worst I've seen in a long time.
It should be noted that the theatrical running time of Date Night was 88 minutes, while the cut on the DVD is just over 101 minutes. So, for once, it appears there is an extended cut that is actually extended. This is my first time seeing it, so I don't know what was different. It played seamlessly, regardless.
The soundtrack is mixed in Dolby 5.1 and sounds fairly good. There are some decent effects and overall everything is very clear.
Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hearing impaired are available, as are tracks in Spanish and French.
There are more than a few extras on the Date Night DVD. A couple of them feature bloopers and outtakes. "Alt City" is 1-minute, 44-seconds long, and is a montage of different line readings. The gag reel runs at 5 minutes, 47 seconds, and is a collection of flubs.
Shawn Levy takes center-stage for two featurettes. "Directing 301" (21:45) has the director taking us behind the scenes to show us what it's like to shoot with a digital camera on the streets of NYC. In "Directing Off Camera" (3:45), he shares some raw footage of scenes where he feeds the actors different ideas in the midst of shooting rather than cutting and starting over.
The "PSAs" (2:00) are three fake commercials with dating tips from Fey and Carell. Mildly funny.
Finally, there are multiple trailers and commercials, including the trailer for Date Night, as well as an instructional for how to use your digital copy, which will presumably come with your purchase.
There was a really good movie in here. Date Night has the right cast in the right premise, but it's otherwise in all the wrong hands. A pedestrian script and vanilla direction means the comedy is all bleached out and the action sequences have absolutely zero danger to them. Surprisingly, the movie still works somehow. Steve Carell and Tina Fey make for a powerful duo, and it's pretty much impossible to not enjoy watching them together. Still, one time will easily be enough: Rent It.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the superhero series It Girl and the Atomics and the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.