Let’s forget for a moment that he played the reprehensible antagonist Jim Batten in the equally awful Jon Mikl Thor vehicle (and MST3K favorite) Zombie Nightmare, or that the rest of his limited acting resume is similarly shoddy. Let’s ignore his boob tube work, directorial efforts for shows like The Secret World of Alex Mack and The Famous Jett Jackson arguing for his limited skills behind the lens. His jump from the small screen to the big Bijou was facilitated by the luck of a prime time draw (2002’s Big Fat Liar featured flavor of the Fox month, Malcolm in the Middle‘s Frankie Muniz) and the restricted success of said family film gave him the chance to expand his creative wings.
The results? The horrid Just Married, the equally awful Cheaper by the Dozen remake, the nauseating update of The Pink Panther (poor Peter Sellers is still spinning in his grave), and the overblown high concept F/X farces Night at the Museum and Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian. Now with Date Night, his deflating of TV titans Tina Fey and Steve Carrel, Shawn Levy has reached a kind of commercial crossroads. While it looks to be a modest hit (Hollywood has never gone broke catering to the ‘CGAS’ - “could give a shit” - demo), it does put this derivative hack demon in a very precarious spot. Until now, he’s been able to hide his Four Horsemen heinousness. But with this unfunny cinematic buffoon-cartoon, Levy has announced himself as the motion picture Antichrist.
No real proof is necessary - his films more than speak for themselves and it may seem harsh to suggest that this genial maker of superficial Tinseltown piffle is the potential destroyer of an entire artform. After all, Uwe Boll, Michael Bay, and Paul W.S. Anderson continue to contribute to the medium’s mediocrity and no one seems to be overly worried. But along with his unoriginal minions Brett Eisner, Peter Segal, Michael Lembeck, and Andy Fickman (just to name a few), he represents a new form of Cineplex nausea, a kind of communal dumbing down in which a saddening decreasing spiral of quality and ambition supplants originality, invention, and in most cases, a basic grasp of filmmaking basics. Of course, as long as their films make money, it doesn’t really matter how horrible they are. Thus begins the entertainment end of days. Thus begins the everlasting reign of Levy.
Take the Night at the Museum films, for one. There is a strong sense of ‘80s celluloid spectacle to the efforts, a real CG desire to make the impossible come magically to life. No one can argue that, when speaking to the post-zygote focus group, Levy is king (albeit a false one). But when viewed by anyone with half a brain or a maturity level beyond Gymboree, the flaws are readily apparent. There is an art to physical comedy. Levy apparently flunked Slapstick 101, 102 and the mandatory Summer School. Film has a constant need to match moments with overall momentum and motive. Satan’s Scorsese ignores almost every facet of these demands and just throws in more out of sync fart jokes. Perhaps most importantly, Levy is one of the few directors who can locate a premise’s underlying weakness, and then overemphasize it to the point of making it the narrative’s entire raison d’etra. He’s one of the few filmmakers capable of making a bad movie worse!
In Date Night, Fey and Carrel are sketched as semi-competent people. They are good at their jobs and when faced with a series of life threatening emergencies are apparently more than capable of reacting with skill and finesse. But the minute they meet up with Levy, they turn into a jokeless Joe Besser, bumbling and broad without a single hint of strength or subtlety. This Mise-en-senseless Moloch hopes that some level of leftover goodwill forces a chortle or two. It doesn’t. Even worse, our couple is then tossed into a hopelessly unrealistic car chase which not only pushes the boundaries of believability, but accents why Fey and Carrel aren’t to be believed. Maneuvering a high end vehicle through the crowded streets of Manhattan is one thing. Doing so while a series of increasingly impossible events play out within said stunt argues for a filmmaker out of control - or better yet, someone who doesn’t really understand the requirements of his craft.
Money, of course, is what matters most and Levy has been Norman Bates’ psycho lucky. Audiences, apparently unwilling to demand satisfaction when a semi-literate time will do, have given the director an increasingly bigger cache of concept carte blanche. Liar made $50 million on a budget of less than a third of same. Married upped that by $8 million or so. Dozen did well over $140 million, while Panther pulled in close to that. But it was the Night movies that really made his reputation, solid cinematic babysitters which saw parents plunk down $250 million and $200 million respectively to keep their progeny quiet. Even if Date Night fails to make a similar profit, Levy can still call his own career shots. His next movie move? A Robot Jox/Robot Wars riff about giant battling automatons with Hugh Jackman (rumored) called Real Steel.
The worst part of all of this is that, no matter what Levy does, it’s destined to suck and suck hard. It will suck so hard that Russian hooker will be jealous. And it will make money. It’s like hack hypnosis. It’s not just a problem of end product (there’s no denying that, while offering some minor amusement, his oeuvre is caked in crap). It’s the notion of ambition that’s bothersome. Levy, like the similarly styled underachieving brethren he’s inspired, never strives to be anything more than below average. They view their “C -” student status with a kind of pride, especially since the great unwashed feel compelled to do little except reward them. Nothing is more unnerving that seeing something with potential (as in the Night movies and, to some extent, Date Night) aiming for the middle and barely making it.
It stinks of sell out, except that such a status is all Levy has. He’s never made a masterpiece, or more realistically, a critical success. Sure, such a rating doesn’t matter when the ducats keep rolling in, but profitability has never been a proper gauge of cinematic classicism. If that was the case, Avatar, Titanic, and the Star Wars prequels would be Citizen Kane. Someone like Shawn Levy is the Antichrist because he cheapens the value of the artform, rendering it nothing more than indistinct and disposable. Like the worst kind of pulp writer, he celebrates the shallow and the easily forgettable. If all media is made up of excellent and appalling, Shawn Levy is a plague…and sadly, his style of subpar cinema is catching.