Directed by: Shawn Levy (Night at the Museum)
Starring: Steve Carell, Tina Fey, Mark Wahlberg, Common, James Franco, Mila Kunis
Date Night offers us a number of first-class passengers who have been packed into a Yugo of a movie. The passengers make the ride a reasonably pleasant one, but only because they’re willing to get out on occasion and push the vehicle up a hill. Nearly everyone in front of the camera makes the actions of those behind the camera appear to matter far less than they actually do, if you examine the movie in more than the most cursory manner. I say nearly everyone simply because I have yet to determine why Mark Ruffalo is even in this. I can only guess that—along with his role in Where the Wild Things Are last year—he’s vying for the title of Good Actor in the Largest Number of Pointless Cameos.
Trouble emerges at the very onset. This is one of those affairs where you have to slog through 15 minutes of setup (and the movie’s only 88 minutes long) to get to the story that was spelled out in approximately 30 seconds of trailer. Blame screenwriter Josh Klausner for this. Credit Steve Carell and Tina Fey as boring and bored married couple Phil and Claire Foster for making the slog more palatable than it has any right to be. (And smack whoever didn’t pick Fey’s “vagina” ad lib—seen in the outtakes at the end—instead of the flat line that’s in the finished film.) Carell and Fey have enough casual chemistry to keep the film appearing to be moving even when it’s stuck in exposition neutral.
Once the story itself begins, the film is on better ground. Phil pretends to be someone else in order to get reservations at a posh restaurant, leading to him and Claire being mistaken for a pair of low-rent blackmailers who’ve crossed a mob boss. The material here is fairly sharp for a while. One gag, in fact, involving their getaway by boat in Central Park is genuinely inspired. The key to a lot of this, though, is still Carell and Fey, who understand that this kind of thrill comedy—where the stars’ lives are endangered—only works if the performers play it straight. They can crack wise on occasion—which they do in a manner that’s reminiscent of the off-the-cuff style of Crosby and Hope—but they never forget that some sense of menace is essential. They always give the illusion of being genuinely scared.
The guest bits involving Mark Wahlberg, James Franco, Mila Kunis and an unbilled Ray Liotta work very nicely by giving the leads quality performers to play off. Again, it helps that Wahlberg and Liotta play it straight. Franco and Kunis do veer into the broad range—that is, they don’t play their roles subtle or straight (they reminded me of Ric Ocasek and Pia Zadora in John Waters’ 1988 Hairspray, except Franco and Kunis can act)—but that works with their characters. It also helps in that it gives Carell and Fey something to react to that’s even weirder than their perilous situation.
Yes, the film is pretty much a one-note affair in terms of plotting (even if the plot is agreeably convoluted). And it certainly errs by sticking an elaborate car chase into the proceedings—presumably because the screenwriter couldn’t think of anything else. However, on the relativity scale, it’s hard not to give the movie credit for being both funnier and more romantic than the execrable The Bounty Hunter. And even though it’s pitched toward high-concept comedy, it makes a better comment on marital ennui than Tyler Perry’s Why Did I Get Married Too. You could add that it’s also the best movie Shawn Levy’s ever made, but that’s really damning it with faint praise. On its own merits, it’s just OK. But the cast makes it worth the visit. Rated PG-13 for sexual and crude content throughout, language, some violence and a drug reference.