A film review by Craig J. Koban April 19, 2010


2010, PG-13, 85 mins.


Phil Foster: Steve Carell / Claire Foster: Tina Fey / Taste: James Franco / Holbrook: Mark Wahlberg / Whippit: Mila Kunis / Mob boss: Ray Liotta

Directed by Shawn Levy / Screenplay by Josh Klausner

If there were one pure delight to be had in the screwball/caper/action/comedy DATE NIGHT then it would be the “it’s about time” pairing of two superlatively gifted screen comedians.  On TV (in 30 ROCK and THE OFFICE) Tina Fey and Steve Carell are sublime comic gold playing equally neurotic characters that are at their most hilarious when engaging in socially awkward verbal play.  The thought of a big screen comedy that pits these two hilarious small screen institutions is a proverbial match made in heaven: when Fey and Carell occupy the same space, DATE NIGHT is on secured footing. 

As much as I cherished the big screen pairing of Fey and Carell – and seeing them effortlessly play off of one another as a hopelessly ill-fated married couple  – the central problem with DATE NIGHT is that the overall product wrapped around their talent is mediocre at best.  The film clearly draws on their strengths to tickle our collective funny bones, not to mention that it understands that just letting them play off of each other leads to the largest guffaws.  Yet, the film has an overly hectic action-infused storyline that borders on monotony.

This film has just about as many lame and regurgitated action film clichés as, say, the very recent BOUNTY HUNTER: we have gun battles and shootouts, car and foot chases, a series of misunderstandings, and an overall plot that revolves around mobsters, crooked cops, flash drives, blackmail, and so on and so on.  Fey and Carell can easily turn a nothing sequence into something robustly uproarious, and they do so on numerous occasions all through DATE NIGHT, but the film’s dull and silly action and broad slapstick subverts the stars’ real authoritative comic skills.  I mean, really, do we want to see Fey and Carell squeeze out chuckles in cookie cutter action set pieces or would we rather see them have quieter and slyer moments of witty banter and wordplay?  

I vote on the latter. 

At they very least, Fey and Carell are a better on-screen couple than Gerard Butler and Jennifer Aniston were in THE BOUNTY HUNTER.  They have tangible and easy-going chemistry, but they are also more oddly appealing because their inherent ordinariness: they are conservatively attractive – without being overly glamorous – movie stars and the film at least has a good time playing up the pairs physical blemishes against others.  They also play normal, everyday people that have lives of oftentimes-painful redundancy, which allows for a much easier audience buy-in.  Fey and Carell play Claire and Phil Foster, a married couple from Jersey with two children, two well-paying – but soul-crushing -  careers, a mortgage, and a social life that borders on comatose.  While Phil is not working as a tax consultant and Claire is not dabbling in her real estate job, they two go out for weekly “date nights” at a steakhouse…and that’s about as fun and exciting as it ever gets for them.  Ever. 

After spending an evening with their best friends (Mark Ruffalo and Kristen Wiig, terribly underused here), Claire and Phil learn of their impending divorce, which sort of shakes up their own views of their lifeless marriage.  Both decide that the best medicine to ensure that they do not end up like their friends is to have a romantic and exciting night out on the town at a posh Manhattan eatery.  They do so without making any attempts to secure a reservation, but the restaurant is so hip and popular that it apparently requires a month’s notice in advance just to come close to a table.  When the dutifully dressed up couple arrive, they are quickly rejected by an obnoxiously snooty maître d’. 

In a moment of inspired spontaneity, Phil acts:  As one of the hostesses shouts out the name of another couple, The Tripplehorns, Phil decides that he and his wife will impersonate them in order to get a table.  Claire begrudgingly agrees, but soon warms over to the idea, especially when it appears the real Tripplehorns are nowhere in sight.  For awhile the Fosters excitedly live in the moment, sipping expensive wine, eating the finest crab meat, and reveling in their naughty deception. 

Their night takes a turn for the worse when a couple of highly intimidating rough necks – Armstrong (Jimmi Simpson) and Collins (Common) – arrive at their table and ask them to join them in the alley outside.  Claire and Phil are a little inebriated, and giddily agree to join them, but they quickly become hysterical and frightened when one pulls a gun on them and demands a highly valuable flash drive that belongs to a local mobster (played with scenery chewing glee by Ray Liotta).  The Fosters clearly are not the Tripplehorns and clearly do not have the flash drive, so they miraculously manage to escape their pursuers and begin to hatch out a plan to secure their safety: they will find the real Tripplehorns and retrieve their flash drive and then decide on whether to either give it to the police or turn it over to the mobster himself.  When they learn that their initial pursuers are actually cops, things get very complicated for them. 

DATE NIGHT definitely has some resoundingly solid laughs, the best of which come with moments of sharp observational comedy.  The opening scenes of the film – which highlight the pathos in the Fosters’ everyday married life – are hilarious for the way they tap into the tedium of the family existence.  It is also the source of the film's single funniest line: During a rather dull book club meeting hosted by Claire and Phil - during which he subtly reveals his disdain for the book - one of Claire’s friends hilariously lashes at him and defends its prose: “You try being a young, menstruating teen while living under Taliban rule!”   

There are two other inspired moments of amusement, such as a scene where the desperate Fosters seek out an old client of Claire’s, a very laid back and inanely bare-chested secret oops dude named Holbrook (a very game and perpetually shirtless Mark Wahlberg) that agrees to help them.  Claire and Phil have come to him at a bad time, seeing as he is about to bed a sexy Israeli that barely speaks English: She believes, at first, that they have arrived for a kinky fourway, but is later relived that they are not there for those reasons, seeing as the Fosters are in no way shape or form as gorgeous as she and Holbrook.  The other scene is perhaps the funniest:  The Fosters do locate the real Tripplehorns, a trailer-trashy couple of misfits (played by the very funny Mila Kunis and James Franco, reminding us as he did in PINEAPPLE EXPRESS why he is one of the most undervalued funnymen in the movies).  They have nicknamed themselves “Taste” and “Whipit” and they can’t decide what they hate more: the fact that the Fosters have broken into their run down shack of an apartment or that they stole their reservation.  Franco nearly hijacks the film from Fey and Carell, which is no easy task; he is absolutely riotous during his all-too-brief cameo.

Aside from those very droll moments, DATE NIGHT flounders in the way it places Fey and Carell in a series of obtrusive action and special effects sequences and too much lame, vaudevillian slapstick.  A lengthy car chase involving two vehicles stuck together and a whole lot of screaming is not as funny as the participants think it is, and a late strip club sequence where Claire and Phil impersonate a pimp and a whore is sort of cheeky, but more than a bit embarrassing for the stars who are much better suited when using their able vocal wits to generate high hilarity.  Ultimately, the overall script is too saturated in monotonous stunts and sight gags, all of which have been done to death before and to much better effect.   

However, I was rarely bored at the sight of Fey and Carell together on screen: they find a way to make their scared stiff – but resourceful, bold, and crafty – couple believable in a sea of completely preposterous events.  I just whish that that film’s script was as smart as its stars.  DATE NIGHT was directed by Shawn Levy, whom has made some passable screen comedies (like the last NIGHT OF THE MUSEUM feature) and some mournfully unnecessary ones (like the first in a series of two needless PINK PANTHER remakes).  At the very least, he knows when to allow his main comic attractions to freely occupy the frame and do what they do best.  Fey and Carell have an undeniable charm, warmth, and instant affability as their on-screen spouses, but it’s clear very early on that the laughs they elicit from their two respective TV shows on a weekly basis are larger and more consistent than through most of DATE NIGHT’s tiresomely, all-over-the-map plot.  You also know that you’re in a bit of trouble when the film’s end credit outtakes have more genuine merriment than most of what has transpired during the film that preceded it.

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