Sometimes, you can judge a book by its cover – or in this case, a potential big picture comedy by the company who created it. When dealing with the dud known as Date Night, we aren’t talking about 30 Rock star Tina Fey or Office god Steve Carrel. Nor are we about to mention the rest of the extended cameo cast, which consists of interesting work by Mark Wahlberg, James Franco, Mila Kunis, William Fitchner, Taraji P. Henson or Ray Liotta. They all more or less acquit themselves admirably. No, the individuals we will be indicting are dumbfoundingly bad director Shawn Levy (Cheaper by the Dozen, The Pink Panther) and his partner in cinematic crime, screenwriter Josh Klausner (Shrek 3 and 4) – and for them, the verdict is guilty, Guilty, GUILTY!!!
The story is standard stuff. Fey is stuck in a rut real estate agent Claire Foster. Carrel is her equally inert tax planner husband Phil. Once a week, they take a break from the stereotypical braying brat sitcom kids home front and head out to a local beef and brew, pounding down potato skins and making snarky comments about the other costumers. Soon they learn that a fellow couple is splitting up, and so they decide to take their regular routine and retrofit it to Manhattan. There, in a snooty seafood joint, they snatch the reservation for a pair called “Tripplehorn”. Before they know it, they are threatened by thugs, running for their lives, breaking into offices, avoiding offers of sex, and driving expensive sports cars down crowded NYC streets – and that’s just the beginning.
It’s so obvious it almost jumps up and bites you in the behind – Date Night is a movie where the material can’t possible live up to the level of talent on display. Fey and Carrel are just too smart, too on the ball and razor-witted, to play human cartoons for Levy and his lame ideas. While everyone else gets their five minutes onscreen and then runs off to cash their paycheck, Fey and Carrel must endure minute after agonizing minute of embarrassing accents, arguments over penis disease (don’t ask), and a car chase so wholly unrealistic and unfunny that it single-handedly destroys any goodwill the movie had built up, or can possible have in the end. Of course, when we get to the denouement, set in a sleazy underground strip club where, oddly enough, no one is naked, we could care less what happens or who it happens to.
Part of the problem here is that Klausner and Levy don’t know how to moderate their mannerisms. There is a moment, during an important part of the plot, where Fey and Carrel stop their pursuit to have a personal discussion about their relationship. As the wackiness slows down and then subsides, a serious look at how life frequently flatlines and disappoints plays out. Carrel, especially, taps into a male vulnerability and frustration that seems unusual, and quite compelling. It is within this exchange that Date Night illustrates its untapped potential, and its waste of solid performers. Before long, this sensibility is gone, replaced by pointless scenes of preposterous police interrogation, arch ad-libbing, and pointless narrative meandering.
Certainly, it’s entertaining to see Wahlberg mock his former Funky Bunch persona as the consistently shirtless “security expert” Holbrooke, and Franco and Kunis never confuse slumming with stupidity. Their “Tripplehorns” seem savvy enough to have pulled off this scam, oddball nicknames (‘Taste’ and ‘Whippit’) and body art aside. But why does Ray Liotta show up, if only to play a bad guy red herring? Why do Common and Jimmi Simpson turn their cops on the take into obvious Internal Affairs warning flags? Even Ms. Henson is given little to do except raise an eyebrow and silently question the readily apparent BS flowing all around her. Date Night populates its ludicrousness with so much high profile froufrou that instead of blurring the badness, it over-emphasizes it.
Besides, there’s not much you can do with the fish out of water narrative that hasn’t been essayed in such superior efforts like After Hours, The Out-of-Towners (the original), and the movie Date Night most resembles, Adventures in Babysitting. In fact, there’s nary a carp out of place when Phil and Claire hit the town. They can manage the snobby staff at the upscale eatery just fine, stand-off with expertise against hired killers, work their way into locked office buildings without breaking a sweat, and maneuver the streets of Manhattan like solid stunt drivers. They even “work the pole” with a skill that suggests Hollywood contrivance, not human desperation. Comedy doesn’t have to be “real” to work, but it does require an ounce of two of humor. Date Night lacks both.
During the closing credits, Fey and Carrel are shown acting spontaneous and working through various punchlines for many of their jokes, and it is within these otherwise unnecessary outtakes where this fiasco finds its focus. Ms. SNL really shines, outdoing every lame scripted zinger she is given in the film with something far more effective (and slightly more ‘blue’). Read between the belly laughs and you’ll see outside interference, the need for a PG-13 or less rating, and Levy’s lack of skill behind the lens as the main culprits for why this film fails. It’s hard to say if something like Date Night really is viable, especially in our cynical, smugger than we are smart society.
Many may see the travails of their favorite prime time pals and giggle as if on autopilot, and there’s no denying the chemistry between Fey and Carrel. But in an era of fading Apatow influence and hilarious bro-dude Hangovers, something like Date Night feels overly light and superficially frivolous. Nothing is more frustrating than seeing potential wasted or put to poor use. With names like John Klausner and Shawn Levy behind the scenes, however, this movie didn’t stand a chance.