If there was a sign needed that The Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop” had been finally and irrevocably domesticated after years of TV commercial and sports arena usage, it comes in the opening credits of this ineffectual comedy, where the song tries to impart a sense of energy, danger, anything to the dispiriting mess to come.
Date Night is a film of many sins, just a few of which are as follows: 1) Unimaginative casting and writing of a stock Mafioso villain (Ray Liotta, deserving better) who is indeed introduced while tucking into a heaping pile of pasta; 2) Random inclusion of name actors and Saturday Night Live comics (Mark Ruffalo, James Franco and Kirsten Wiig) in bit parts to try and get viewers to pay attention; 3) Painfully overzealous product placement; 4) Desire to triple-underline every last emotional beat in the script; and 5) Assumption that bad dancing is automatically funny.
All this mediocrity stems from a good-enough idea. Steve Carell and Tina Fey play Phil and Claire Foster, a suburban New Jersey couple whose lives are contentedly movie-boring. He’s an accountant, she’s in real estate, and they spend most of their non-work waking hours in the raising of a couple of cute-ish moppets. Every so often, they have a date night, when means a babysitter and dinner at the same side-of-the-highway steakhouse.
One date night, in an effort to break from the routine, Phil takes Claire into Manhattan to a fancy new restaurant (but not before a woefully weary joke about men not taking directions well, which seems to be so old it can’t even count as humor any more). Unable to get a table, they impersonate another couple, the Armstrongs, in order to sneak their reservation. Problem is, a couple of gunsels (Common and Jimmi Simpson) then appear looking for the Armstrongs, thinking they have some flash drive of highly illicit value. Guns are fired, and the Fosters dash off into the big city (Manhattan being portrayed as actually dangerous, a rare thing these days).
There could have been something here, a cannonballing from one wildly overacting character actor to the next while just trying to stay alive long enough to get the kids up for school in the morning — an Adventures in the Babysitting for the DVR generation — but things go wrong just about from the start (after “Blitzkrieg Bop,” at least), with Carrel and Fey failing and flailing in roles that seem written for other people.
Carrel and Fey are small-ball and small-screen comics. On The Office and 30 Rock, their underplayed neuroses and non-sequitur outbursts are effective when made the center of attention (as with Carrel) or when paired with a much stronger performer (Alec Baldwin, the case of Fey). Paired with each other and an undercooked script, they simply don’t have that much to bring to the table. Franco and Curb Your Enthusiasm‘s J.B. Smoove make an impression in their smaller roles by playing them to the hilt. This is a comedy from the director of Cheaper By the Dozen, after all; low-key won’t cut it.
Not that there was much that could have been done with this script, anyway. The jokes are so thinly spaced and the action material inserted with such dire regularity that a cast of hopped-up Upright Citizens Brigade regulars would have failed to make much of a dent. A case in point is the DVD’s special features, larded with director-hosted making-of filler as well as alternate takes and a gag reel, which mostly shows that even when Carell and Fey were just riffing, there wasn’t exactly a surfeit of comic gold to work from.
Any time a head of steam starts to get built up, director Shawn Levy lets it leak right back out, such as in the scene where the Fosters, bickering while driving away from their pursuers in a stolen car, actually take the time to pull over to the side of the road to discuss problems in their relationship. If the two hadn’t been shown to be so cozily well-suited for each other in the early scenes, the need to address their problems might have seemed more urgent than the crooked cops on their tail.
The final insult isn’t so much the watery comedy or indifferently handled action, but a subplot surrounding a book club of Claire’s that Phil joined to be supportive. In an ugly, ham-fisted swipe at book club fare like The Kite Runner, the film references a plot about a woman running from the Taliban into the desert where she can menstruate in peace. Claire complains, “Who has time to read these books? I don’t like them.”
A similarly styled scene on 30 Rock would have had Fey’s Liz Lemon proclaiming her preference for reality-TV show in a brazenly self-mocking way that acknowledged her trashy tastes. It wouldn’t have tried to disguise anti-literate whining as middle-of-the-road all-American authenticity.