The movie Date Night breaks my heart. On paper, a comedy starring Steve Carell of The Office and Tina Fey of 30 Rock sounds like the best idea ever; both are consistently funny and insanely likable and have the potential to play off one another in way that most Hollywood-produced romantic comedy couplings can't. Unfortunately, the stars are at the mercy of a loud, busy, contrived screenplay (by Josh Klausner) and the direction of populist hack Shawn Levy (of the Night at the Musuem films). The resulting mess is a pseudo-action comedy emphasizing broad slapstick and identity confusion instead of character-driven humor or funny dialogue where Carell and Fey might have actually excelled. Date Night doesn't understand what makes its two lead actors funny. It doesn't even seem to understand what makes its bit players funny, with comedians like Kristen Wiig, Bill Burr and Nick Kroll being wasted in thankless bit parts.
Carell and Fey star as Phil and Claire Foster, a longtime couple whose marriage has lapsed into familiar roles and routines. In an attempt to bring the spark back into their love life, Phil takes Claire out for a fancy dinner in Manhattan; when the restaurant is booked, the pair impersonate the no-show Tripplehorne party to get a table. Unfortunately, the Tripplehornes are involved in a blackmail scheme with New York's most notorious gangster (Ray Liotta), and before long Phil and Claire's dull life has given way to car chases, shootouts, strip routines and a hunky security specialist (Mark Whalberg) who refuses to put a shirt on.
I can understand the logic behind Date Night: take two comedic actors who don't belong in an action film and put them in an action film, hoping hilarious results will ensue. It might not even be such a terrible idea if it didn't all feel so familiar and predictable, and if Shawn Levy didn't equate busy and noisy with funny -- the movie is like a kid who won't stop screaming and waving his arms as long as it's keeping your attention. And who knows? If Date Night had starred Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon, it might have been just as dumb and forgettable but not nearly as disappointing. That's what I can't forgive the film for: it squanders the opportunity to have Carell and Fey bouncing off one another on screen by forcing them to run around and shout all the time (and let's try and ignore that for a movie that seemingly wants tp play to the masses, it's last act is unusually sleazy and spends way too much time ogling scantily-clad women, including an uncomfortable Fey; still, I guess the lesson is that if you want to keep your marriage interesting, you have to dress up like a stripper). When it does slow down long enough for them to just talk to each other, there are laughs to be found -- particularly from Fey, who never really stops feeling out of place but whose throwaway jokes are the movie's best moments. She has one about gum that's the best line in the film. It's in those scenes where you realize that Date Night could have been something special instead of just more slick studio product.
Chances are, Date Night is still going to make a bunch of money no matter how I feel about it. That Shawn Levy knows how to make a hit movie, even when it's not very good. I won't be upset if it manages to make movie stars out of Tina Fey and Steve Carell, two incredibly talented people who deserve everything they've got coming to them. I just hope that the next time around, both actors find material that plays to their strengths. They deserve better than Date Night. So, I'm afraid, do we.
- Date Night is rated PG-13 for sexual and crude content throughout, language, some violence and a drug reference.
- Release Date: 4/9/10
- Running Time: 88 minutes
- Studio: Fox