Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Review - Date Night

Steve Carell and Tina Fey are two of the most likeable and reliably funny actors currently working, and they have both proven themselves in sitcoms that rely on sharp writing and tight plotting. So why on earth would anyone want to waste their considerable talents on a half-baked screenplay that feels like it has been gathering dust in some producer's drawer for two decades? Both actors are smarter than this script allows them to be, and at times you can feel the tension, with the pair – particularly Fey – seeming desperate for the chance to cut loose, and to be free from the straitjacket this generic movie has trapped them in. That doesn't just apply to the two leads either, as Date Night has a dream cast of comic talent lining up to fill even the smallest roles. There's a whole lot of potential being wasted here.

The thing about talented actors, however, is they're often good enough to raise the level of whatever mediocre material they're working with, and that's what buoys Date Night along for its first half at least. Carell and Fey play Phil and Claire Foster, a self-described "boring married couple from New Jersey" whose relationship has lost the spark it once possessed. After their long days at work, and having taken care of the kids, neither has enough left by the end of the evening to make their spouse feel special, and even their 'date nights', which allow them to hire a babysitter and escape for some quality time together, have fallen into a drearily familiar routine. They are, in other words, a very ordinary married couple, and Carell and Fey have the chemistry required to make their situation feel real. There's still a lot of love and affection in this relationship, and I particularly liked their restaurant game of inventing silly backstories for their fellow diners, which displays the shared humour that has obviously kept them together, but they have simply allowed themselves to take each other for granted over the years.

The Fosters are shaken out of their ennui by the revelation that a couple of friends (Mark Ruffalo and Kristen Wiig, turning up for a one scene cameo and underlining this film's embarrassment of casting riches) are separating, deciding that they feel more like excellent roommates than a married pair. Phil and Claire are suddenly inspired to make an effort on their upcoming date night, and when Phil makes the rash decision to claim an absent couple's reservation at a swanky hotel their problems begin. Unfortunately, this is where Date Night's problems begin as well, with a case of mistaken identity plunging The Fosters, North by Northwest-style, into danger and adventure beyond their wildest imaginings. I have to admit, I was enjoying the Date portion of this movie a lot more than I enjoyed the subsequent action-filled Night.

Date Night has been directed by Shawn Levy, a consistently terrible hack whose dead hand fails to find any kind of rhythm or invention as Josh Klausner's increasingly silly screenplay unfolds. The plot has something to do with a flash drive containing incriminating evidence that the Tripplehorns – the couple the Fosters claim to be at the restaurant – have stolen, but the action they become embroiled in is unimaginative, never coming close to the unpredictable hysteria of something like After Hours. Date Night only has a couple of ideas to play with, and it tends to render them useless through repetition (a shirtless Mark Wahlberg; the frequent penis/vagina gags) or drag them out long beyond the point where they stopped being entertaining (a car chase sequence that Levy totally botches).

Throughout all of this, the cast keep things watchable. Aside from Wahlberg's mildly amusing turn, there are supporting roles for James Franco and Mila Kunis (both lively and funny), Taraji P Henson, William Fichtner, Ray Liotta and JB Smoove. Lord knows, these are people who know how to be funny, but Date Night doesn't take advantage of the comic ability at its disposal, and it left me wondering what place actors like Carell and Fey have in mainstream cinema. Date Night joins Get Smart and Baby Mama as another film that has taken these distinctive talents and smoothed their edges to fit the demands of a generic piece of comedy filmmaking. None of these films are truly terrible, but they all, to different degrees, feel like missed opportunities. As I watched Carell and Fey cavorting awkwardly on a stage in the film's terrible climax (it really goes downhill in the last twenty minutes), I was left feeling frustrated and depressed. These actors are so much better than this, but when will they get the chance to prove it?