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Non-Review Review: Date Night

Date Night is a perfectly okay film (okay, maybe a tinsy bit better than “perfectly okay”, but “a tinsy bit better than than a perfectly okay film” just doesn’t roll off the tongue as easily as it should). It essentially coasts off its deliciously old-school comedy-of-errors premise and the charisma of its two leading actors (plus their ensemble of cameo! friends), while never really trying too hard or ever really hitting a note of pitch perfect comic genius. There are no lines you’ll be quoting to yourself for weeks afterwards (except maybe “kill shot!” every time somebody tilts their sideways gun at you – but I’ll assume that doesn’t happen too often).

Their date night is about to become a late night...

The central premise of Date Night places two New Jersey residents to Manhatten in the late hours of a Friday night. Of course they encounter a host of wacky characters, engage in reckless adventures and death-defying stunts and get drawn into a situation far outside their own little world, but it all flows from that central classic premise. This isn’t post-modern or meta-comedy, nor is it a film that stands proudly alongside the typical “middle-aged man-child” school of comedy that Judd Atapow has crafted. Instead, it’s just a fish out-of-water plot, with two relaxed middle-class individuals into the strange and frentic pace of New York life. Oh, and there are also guns.

Basically our two leading characters find the romance fizzling out of their marriage. The early scenes of the movie quite effectively capture the same sort of mundane family life that can drain a relationship, even if not actively straining it – director Shaun Levy (along with his leading actors Tina Fey and Steve Carrell) manage to make the two characters seem at least reasonably realistic within a fairly short space of time – at 88 minutes, the movie really breezes by. Anyway, our leading couple, the Fosters, attempt to secure a seat at an up-market New York sea food place – only to find it booked out. Acting on impulse, they seize a reservation made by another couple, the Tripplehorns.

And from there, the plot kicks off – a bunch of goons looking for the Tripplehorns zero in on our suburbanites, and chaos ensues. The movie breezes from one set of wacky side characters to another – there are cameos along the way from Kristin Wiig, Mark Ruffalo, Ray Liotta, William Fitchner, Mila Kunis, James Franco and Mark Wahlberg’s abs, among others. There’s also the occasional action sequence (including a relatively creative car chase through the island). Individual elements sink or swim – with the cameo from the “real” Tripplehorns being a highlight – but it’s up to Fey and Carrell to anchor the comedy, with their delightful personal interactions. Which is perhaps the strongest element of the film, because not all the elements gel.

Fey and Carrell are two of the best comedians working today. While I favour Fey as a writer rather than a performer, she’s still a more-than-skilled actress. Carrell hasn’t had consistent big screen success, showing huge potential in The 40 Year Old Virgin before popping up in all manner of poorly-received half-baked nonsense like Get Smart! or Evan Almighty. Here they certainly feel like old school comedians – they realise the joke isn’t funny if they are in on it and the movie benefits from the fact they play it straight. I don’t know how much of the movie was improvised, but I imagine quite a bit of their dialogue was ad-libbed (at least if you believe the inevitable credits gag-reel) – and this tends to be a bit uneven. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t – but it’s generally entertaining enough to sustain the film.

The movie itself has a fundamental problem of identity, though. Action and comedy are too very tough genres to balance within the same film. If you veer too far into comedy, even the action becomes ridiculous, but action requires the kind of dramatic stakes that eat into comedy. Again, the movie finds a nice balance, but not a perfect one – it is seldom funny or action-packed at the same moment, seemingly alternating between the two.

Date Night is grand. It isn’t perfect, but it isn’t terrible. It isn’t boring, but it isn’t a laugh-a-minute either. It’s a testament to the charm of the cast and crew that it entertains as much as it does, but it doesn’t do anything that is (of itself) exceptional, or even anything exceptionally well.

7 Responses

  1. Tripplehorns?
    Jeanne Tripplehorn, great actress

  2. Carell and Fey are the best. Where would NBC be without them?

  3. I am a huge fan of Tina and Steve and think they have both found excellent success in TV.

    I’d like to make the argument that Steve’s career is not quite as bad outside of 40 Year Old Virgin as some people think. I thought he gave a forceful performance in Dan in Real Life. His role in Bruce Almighty is still funnier than everything else in that movie, and I don’t think Get Smart was all that bad, it was light cheap fun. Let’s also not forget Little Miss Sunshine.

    Not sure where I am really going with this all. I guess I just wish Steve would make less big, family fun comedies and do more of the grown up stuff that made him so famous. Same applies for Tina.

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