Going to the movies always involves a little disappointment, since what is promised is rarely what is delivered. But in terms of depressing experiences, it would be hard to top going to see Tina Fey and Steve Carell, the stars of two of the funniest, most sophisticated shows on TV, in the ramshackle, almost totally forgettable “Date Night,” which opened this weekend to decidedly mixed reviews and what turned out to be $25.2 million at the box office, a significant drop-off from 20th Century Fox’s original estimates.
The movie’s ad campaign shamelessly exploited all the goodwill we have toward its two stars, who have made “30 Rock” and “The Office” must-see TV. But the movie itself only reinforced a sad truth about today’s Hollywood. If you want to see sparkling comedy and compelling drama, you’d have much better luck staying home, curled up in front of your TV set instead of hiring a baby-sitter and fighting traffic getting to the multiplex.
When it comes to “Date Night,” what you can see for free on network TV is a huge cut above what you have to pay $10 to see in the theater. Reviewing “Date Night” in the Christian Science Monitor, Peter Rainer described the film as a “miserable comedy,” adding that “it used to be that television was the fallback position for movie actors, most of whom only deigned to appear on the tube when they were over the hill. Nowadays, TV fare, especially dramas and (some) comedies — like Carell’s ‘The Office’ or Fey’s ‘30 Rock,’ not to mention ‘Saturday Night Live’ — are usually smarter and edgier than their movie counterparts.” The L.A. Times’ Kenneth Turan was a little more enthusiastic, but not much.
But why? Is it TV that has stepped up its game? Or is it Hollywood that gotten into the habit of stooping to conquer? Actually, I’d argue that it’s both. At some point over the past decade, nearly every wing of television, from the HBO and Showtime pay channels to basic cable outlets like TNT and USA all the way to the Big Four networks, has generated memorable comedies and dramas. Theories abound for why the renaissance happened in the 2000s. For me, the most persuasive explanation is HBO envy. After all, after raising the bar so high with “The Sopranos,” “Sex and the City” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” it was HBO that was rewarded with a hugely loyal audience.
At first, some network chiefs bitterly complained that HBO was stealing viewers simply by offering them nudity and violence. But when cooler heads prevailed, the channel’s rivals realized that giving their show runners the same creative autonomy as the creators of HBO’s shows could translate into better ratings and a whole lot of media heat. Just look at AMC, which languished in obscurity for years until it took the huge leap of putting “Mad Men” on the air (a show that had been initially rejected by HBO, of all places). Even though its ratings have been modest, “Mad Men” put AMC on the map in a big way. And with “Breaking Bad,” AMC has a show with even better ratings and nearly as much critical acclaim.
This has happened all over the TV spectrum, with the crucial element being that in TV, writer-producers have far more creative clout than they can ever possess in movies. David Simon (“The Wire” and “Treme”), David Chase (“The Sopranos”), Aaron Sorkin (“The West Wing”), Vince Gilligan (“Breaking Bad”), Matthew Weiner (“Mad Men”), Jenji Kohan (“Weeds”) and Greg Daniels (“The Office”) aren’t running networks. But they are running their TV shows, and often with iron-clad assurances of artistic freedom.
Needless to say, this is not how it works in the movie business, where the writer is usually a hired hand, has precious little to say about the final product and is lucky to even be invited to the premiere. In the case of “Date Night,” the film’s writer credit goes to Josh Klausner, who judging from his “Shrek the Third” credit is probably responsible for the film’s wealth of pop culture references — it’s crammed with jokes about everything from John Hughes’ “Sixteen Candles” to Cyndi Lauper, with even a throwaway gag about Raymond Burr!
But he is just one of many voices. The movie also had a major rewrite by a pair of screenwriters who had worked on recent Fox films: Aline Bosh McKenna (who wrote “27 Dresses” and “The Devil Wears Prada,” both Fox films) and Simon Kinberg, who wrote Fox’s “X-Men: The Last Stand” and “Jumper.” Other writers were brought in to do polishes before the film went into production. Like most Hollywood efforts, if “Date Night” has a sensibility, it’s the sensibility of its director, Shawn Levy, one of moviedom’s most successful comedy filmmakers. (He’s the guy behind “Cheaper by the Dozen” and both of the hugely successful “Night at the Museum” releases, all made by Fox.).
Known in the business as a smart, likable guy, Levy’s philosophy about comedy might best be described as: Funny is money. His films aim to entertain, but rarely offer anything but the most obvious jokes and situations. The plot of “Date Night” is especially implausible — it basically takes Fey and Carell and puts them in peril, rattling off jokes as they try to stay one step ahead of a rash of crooked cops and bad guys, as if they were doing a remake of “Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer.”
But there’s a reason why Levy has made most of his films at Fox. It’s a studio that churns out films like “Date Night” every year, crafted as interchangeable assembly-line products. In TV, the writer-producer is the boss. But at studios like Fox, the studio is the producer of the film, always insistent on shaping its product. In many ways, Fox is the Hollywood equivalent of Wal-Mart, a studio that keeps its cost down and delivers products that appeal to as wide an audience as possible. In fact, “Date Night” is a perfect example of studio high concept. Its poster simply shows its two stars and the title, reminding us that, at a studio like Fox, the creative decision-making process is built around marketing. After seeing the movie, it’s clear that the stars were easily replaceable. The concept was what mattered. The movie would’ve worked just as well — and been just as easy to market — if the stars had been Cameron Diaz and Paul Rudd instead of Fey and Carell.
This is what happens when the original creator is shut out of the process. With rare exception, the best comedies in Hollywood have either been made by writer-directors with serious clout — think James Brooks or Cameron Crowe — or by writer-producers who’ve earned the artistic autonomy provided in much of TV, like Judd Apatow, Hollywood’s reigning king of comedy, who, of course, got his start in television and assembles his films in much the same way a show runner puts together a TV show.
As for “Date Night,” you’d have to call it a missed opportunity. As a number of critics have noted, many of the best laughs in the movie are in the outtakes that run during the closing credits, where you get to see Fey and Carell cut loose, improvising some wildly hilarious bits of business. When I saw the movie on Sunday, not a soul left the theater until after the credits rolled — word had clearly gotten around that the outtakes were not to be missed. But it’s telling that the gags didn’t make it into the finished film, which in its search for the biggest possible audience filed away all the rough edges and quirky comedy touches that we get to see every week in “The Office” and “30 Rock.”
In today’s world, where movies are packaged and previewed like a new underarm deodorant, the best entertainment can be had for free. Just turn on your TV. In terms of creativity, it’s where the real racehorses are running.