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Oy, What a Night

April 21, 2010
Date Night

Tina Fey and Steve Carrell are a suburban couple whose attempt at a night in the city goes horribly wrong in Date Night.

The high-concept, low-reward Date Night is a modern screwball comedy, which is to say, it’s an action movie centered around a couple.

What theoretically separates Date Night from the undistinguished pack of Aniston and McConaughey flicks is its casting. Date Night pairs the stars of the two most consistently funny shows on TV, Steve Carrell and Tina Fey, as “a boring married couple from New Jersey” who go to New York for a date and end up entangled in a conspiracy involving rogue cops, the mob and a district attorney with a taste for kink.

Carrell and Fey have generated oceans of good will from the lovable clowns they play on The Office and 30 Rock, and the self-effacing personalities they display in interviews. They are not just hard-working professionals, but really nice people to boot. But if there’s one lesson to be learned from this movie, it’s this: likability will only get you so far.

How far? There are two ways to answer this question. One is to say as far as the generically obligatory mid-movie car chase. At that point, the film kicks into plot-tie-up mode, and we get a lot more screaming and gun-pointing than we get slapstick or repartee.

Another way of answering it is to look at the historical template for Date Night, the great screwball comedies of the ‘30s and ‘40s. Classics like It Happened One Night, The Palm Beach Story and The Awful Truth used far-fetched plots as a way to create obstacles between their beautiful, charismatic stars and inevitable union (or reunion). But just because the leads were likable doesn’t mean they were always nice. As Cary Grant and Clark Gable demonstrated countless times, sometimes you have to bring the nasty before you get the girl.

But neither Carrell, nor Fey, nor director Shawn Levy (Night at the Museum, The Pink Panther (2006)) seems interested in showing us anything but the stars’ most lovable sides. As Phil and Clara Foster, Carrell and Fey are overworked, under-sexed and a bit bored, but they are never less than scrupulously kind to their kids or each other. Their relationship problems run no deeper than generic monotony. The Fosters are less characters than types, a Mr. and Mrs. Everyman drawn broadly enough that any married couple with kids will be able to relate to their marital angst.

The universality of their predicament does have its moments of amusing resonance, like when the pair spends most of a date hypothesizing back-stories for the other couples in a restaurant. Or when they exchange feeble late-night excuses for their lack of sexual desire. “It’s totally cool if you don’t want to fool around,” says Fey, moments after removing a drool-soaked retainer from her mouth.

Once the Fosters are mistaken for a criminal couple at a trendy TriBeCa restaurant, Levy alternates between scenes of awkward action and marital bickering. The conjugal conflict is supposed to provide comic counterpoint to the insipid plot. But their arguments are so prototypical—she wants some peace and quiet, he feels she doesn’t let him do anything for himself—that Carrell and Fey quickly lose any interest as a real couple. What laughs the film is able to generate come from our relationship with the performers involved, not the characters they play. (And this is constrained anyway by the necessities of the overstuffed plot, which limits the opportunities for Carrell and Fey to show off their vaunted improvisational skills.)

Following the fashion of modern studio comedies, Date Night is sprinkled with comic cameos from well-known actors. This is typically called “inspired casting,” although here it looks more like a hedge against flat writing. James Franco and Mila Kunis are mildly amusing as the couple the Fosters are mistaken for, while Ray Liotta does a paycheck-cashing impersonation of himself as the mob boss. Mark Wahlberg features prominently as a black-ops boy toy who helps the Fosters evade their enemies. His shirtless abs provide a nice running joke, but Wahlberg’s comic timing is barely above competent.

One curious fact about Josh Klausner’s screenplay is that it strays from screwball convention by never separating its leads, even for a scene. Perhaps he was trying to emphasize the way marriage is a full-time commitment, made valuable not by the times apart but by the times together. Or perhaps the producers were scared we’d remember how much we like Fey and Carrell as single characters.

In a seminal essay on screwball comedy, Stanley Cavell referred to a subset of these movies as “comedies of remarriage.” In the “comedy of remarriage,” a married couple separates, only to renew their devotion via a shared adventure. Cavell sees the best examples of this mini-genre as providing a powerful response to the alienation of the post-Enlightenment world. Date Night aims for this ideal. But it feels more like a date with somebody where the spark has gone. What once seemed so full of potential ends up as more of the same-old-same-old.

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