April 07, 2010

Date Night

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A movie review by James Berardinelli



Date Night

COMEDY/ACTION:

United States, 2010

U.S. Release Date:

2010-04-09

Running Length:

1:28

MPAA Classification:

PG-13 (Profanity, Sexual Content, Violence)

Theatrical Aspect Ratio:

2.35:1

Cast:

Steve Carell, Tina Fey, Mark Wahlberg, Taraji P. Henson, Jimmi Simpson, Common, William Fichtner

Director:

Shawn Levy

Screenplay:

Josh Klausner

Cinematography:

Dean Semler

Music:

Christophe Beck

U.S. Distributor:

20th Century Fox

Subtitles:

none


There's a reason why so many action/comedies are failures. This is as true for more obvious misfires like The Bounty Hunter and Cop Out as it is for minor infractors like Date Night, an affable but ultimately forgettable example of the genre. In too many cases, the films are designed primarily for their comedic value with the thriller/action elements shoehorned in as filler. Invariably, this means that the chase scenes, shootouts, etc. are obligatory and uninteresting, and often seem to be obstructing more interesting aspects of the story. Successful action/comedies are typically developed primarily as thrillers with the humor layered on top.

Date Night comes uncomfortably close to The Bounty Hunter, at least insofar as its "high concept" goes: a married couple rekindle their romance while fleeing from a group of gun-happy bad guys. It's hard to argue that the screenplay for Date Night is more clever than that of The Bounty Hunter, but it's nearly a half-hour shorter (which is a blessing) and features tangible chemistry between the leads. Steve Carell and Tina Fey click in a way that Gerard Butler and Jennifer Aniston don't. That, more than anything, is why Date Night proves to be tolerable whereas The Bounty Hunter is something of an endurance trial.

Phil and Claire Foster (Steve Carell and Tina Fey) are a happily married couple whose marital intimacy has been reduced to occasional "date nights" as a result of the pressures represented by two careers and two children. On one such date night, Phil decides to try a walk on the wild side and take Claire to a trendy new Manhattan restaurant without making the necessary month-in-advance reservation. As the Fosters hang around the bar waiting for a table to open up, they hear the hostess repeatedly calling for "the Tripplehorns." Correctly deducing that the Trippehorns are not on the premises, Phil decides to steal their reservation. The tactic works out well for a few minutes - until it becomes apparent why the Tripplehorns stayed away. A couple of intimidating bad guys - Armstrong (Jimmi Simpson) and Collins (Common) - arrive to retrieve "the flash drive" from Phil and Claire - something they don't have. Chases and other examples of staple action mayhem ensue until the Fosters determine that the only path to safety lies in obtaining the flash drive from the real Tripplehorns and handing it over to (a) the cops, (b) no-nonsense DA Frank Crenshaw (William Fichtner), or (c) NYC's current mob boss (Ray Liotta). For help, they go to a laid-back ex-secret ops guy named Holbrooke (Mark Wahlberg) who rarely wears a shirt, has a history with Claire, and is involved with sexy Israeli woman who wants to know if a foursome is in the cards.

The scenes that don't feature car chases, Mexican standoffs, and other assorted action devices are mostly enjoyable. The set-up will be familiar to many suburban moms and dads whose nuclear families have not fallen prey to dysfunction, and the keenly observed humor in everyday married-with-children situations is expressed in a manner that exaggerates only slightly for effect. Take away the silliness of the mobsters and their crooked cop allies and Date Night might work as a big-screen sit-com - an arena in which both Carell and Fey have shown themselves to be capable. The pleasure to be found here is in watching the stars interact, not seeing the stunts and special effects. Even in the midst of the film's action sequences, there's time for a pleasant interlude in which Phil and Claire contemplate their marriage - it's a gem that reminds us how enjoyable the movie can be when it switches into a lower gear. Unfortunately, director Shawn Levy may not understand how to do action effectively, but that doesn't stop him from trying.

Carell and Fey have been surrounded with an interesting and high-profile supporting cast. Jimmi Simpson and rapper-turned-actor Common portray gun-toting villains who are a bit more serious than the typical action/comedy bumblers. Taraji P. Henson is the police officer who wonders why a couple from the suburbs has become mixed up in crimes across the city. Mark Wahlberg, who spends most of his screen time bare-chested, acts a little spacey. Recognizable names with small parts include Ray Liotta (frothing at the mouth as usual), William Fichtner, Mark Ruffalo, Kristin Wiig, Mila Kunis, and James Franco.

As dynamic as the duo of Carell and Fey might be, they prove unable to reverse the trend of padded and forgettable action/comedies. Nevertheless, they lend a degree of panache to an unremarkable script that allows Date Night to go down smoothly. No one is going to remember the movie in a month (or, in many cases, the day after seeing it), but for Mommies and Daddies seeking a night's break from their children, it's adequate entertainment.

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