Date Night: Tina Fey and Steve Carell Go Lowbrow -- and Chemistry Free

"We are not these people! We are a boring couple from New Jersey!" complains Claire Foster (Tina Fey) to her husband, Phil (Steve Carell), about halfway through Date Night, the latest high-gloss, middle-to-low-brow would-be blockbuster from director Shawn Levy (Cheaper by the Dozen, Just Married). Phil and Claire are middle-class, suburban parents whose plans for a night on the town are thwarted when they're pulled into a web of crime and conspiracy after stealing a dinner reservation from a pair of shifty Lower East Side hipsters (James Franco and Mila Kunis). Having learned that two friends are getting a divorce, Claire and Phil spend much of their night bickering about whether or not their own marriage is in trouble — while at the same time committing grand theft auto and evading bad lieutenants. They wanted a night off from mundanity and got it. A few celebrity cameos and 88 minutes of contrived set pieces later, they learn that they're better off bored.

Carell and Fey are, certainly, not these people. This is a mass-market comedy starring actors who generally don't do mass — the leads each have their own sitcom, but The Office and 30 Rock play to specialized audiences. Fey, particularly, has become associated with comedy that's fast-paced, cerebral, and laden with cultural references; even more than Carell, she's hurt by the transition from her super-nerd TV role on a show that regularly operates on multiple levels to a film squarely aimed just north of the lowest common denominator.

Phil and Claire are apparently the only "boring couple" left in a tri-state area full of dirty cops, extorting baby sitters, and sexual deviants. (Mark Wahlberg plays a "security expert" whose permanent shirtlessness sends the repressed Phil into conniptions; a politician's outsize sexual appetites are the catalyst for the film's final absurd plot twist.) There are moments, particularly when Levy switches to a handheld, quasi-Greengrass in-the-shit-cam, when it seems like Date Night could be aiming for a comic indictment of American paranoia. But Levy glosses over the seeds of social satire inherent in the premise and instead tries to make his movie all things to all quadrants — straight-faced violent action flick, slapstick comedy, relationship comedy, sanctimonious ode to family values. Date Night bears the Frankenstein scars of a script that's been rewritten to death and brought back to life (Josh Klausner has the official screenplay credit). It also bears the distinct ellipses of R-rated material shaved down to a PG-13.

Domestic disturbance: Tina Fey and Steve Carell are on the run in Date Night.
Domestic disturbance: Tina Fey and Steve Carell are on the run in Date Night.

Details

Directed by Shawn Levy. Written by Josh Klausner. Starring Tina Fey, Steve Carell, Mark Wahlberg, James Franco and Mila Kunis. Rated PG-13.

Within its jumble of genres, tones, and styles, Date Night strains to be a serious movie about marriage, aiming to convince us that Carell and Fey's compatibility is not to be laughed at. That this fails miserably is due to the pair's total lack of chemistry (at one point, husband invites wife to sit next to him in a diner booth, and when Fey shuffles over to Carell, her body language broadcasts not "attraction," but "contractual obligation"), but also because of Date Night's romantic philosophy.

Between the explosion of bromance and the emphasis on tragedy in romantic films (Brokeback Mountain, every Nicholas Sparks movie) and/or taboo (Brokeback Mountain, pretty much every Nancy Meyers movie), it's notable that Date Night sincerely endorses square marriage, caveat-free and with functionality its primary virtue. It might be novel if it weren't so boring.

The movies that have most successfully advocated for marriage, such as the comedies of remarriage of the 1930s and '40s, have presented this most conventional construct as the thrilling, unsafe option. There's danger in the relationships of films like The Awful Truth or The Philadelphia Story because they acknowledge that the coupling has failed at least once, and could fail again. And that keeps things interesting.

 
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