Friday, April 9, 2010

Date Night: Bland date

Date Night (2010) • View trailer for Date Night
Three stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, and quite generously, for profanity, violence and considerable smutty content
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.9.10
Buy DVD: Date Night • Buy Blu-Ray: Date Night (Extended Edition) (With Digital Copy) [Blu-ray]

I sure wish Tina Fey had written Date Night, instead of simply co-starring with Steve Carell.

She'd have done a much better job.
Phil (Steve Carell, center) can't understand why Holbrooke (Mark Wahlberg)
keeps wandering around without a shirt, although Phil's wife, Claire (Tina Fey),
certainly doesn't seem bothered, in one of the more amusing segments of the
otherwise disappointing Date Night.

This film could be considered Exhibit A when it comes to Hollywood's lamentable tendency to place star power above script. The project clearly began life as a 25-word pitch designed to pair Fey with Carell, which then got handed to a hack writer  Josh Klausner, whose only previous credit of merit was as part of the committee on Shrek the Third  who didn't have the faintest idea what to do with the material.

The results are clumsy and uneven, to say the least.

The essential premise  a conservative middle-age suburban couple dropped into the big, bad city  goes back to 1970's The Out-of-Towners, a rare misfire from Neil Simon that starred Jack Lemmon and Sandy Dennis. John Landis got much closer to the proper blend of danger and snarky humor with 1985's Into the Night, which paired nerdy Jeff Goldblum with femme fatale Michelle Pfeiffer.

The 1999 remake of The Out-of-Towners, with Steve Martin and Goldie Hawn, is best forgotten ... although it suffered from the same problem that plagues Date Night: a great concept, and two talented leading players, in desperate search of a script.

The set-up here is both clever and reasonably efficient, leading us to expect better than what we eventually get. Phil (Carell) and Claire Foster (Fey) are a sensible, devoted couple with the stereotypical two kids and charming house in the 'burbs of New Jersey. The discovery that their two best friends are getting divorced  mostly due to bland indifference  precipitates a mild crisis, as both Phil and Claire worry that they, too, have become overly complacent, the passion and adventure having leached from their relationship.

Phil thus proposes a change for their next weekly date night: Instead of the usual local Teaneck Tavern, they'll head into Manhattan for dinner at the city's hottest new restaurant. Naturally, they lack reservations, and all looks lost ... until Phil realizes that another couple  the Tripplehorns  aren't responding to their summons to dine. Impulsively claiming the identities of the no-shows, Phil and Claire enjoy a nice dinner.

After which they're accosted by a couple of thugs with guns, who clearly have issues with the actual Tripplehorns.

Things get ugly, since the goons refuse to believe Phil and Claire's frantic insistence that this is a case of mistaken identity. Suddenly on the run and lacking the faintest notion what to do next, our bland suburban couple stumbles from one wild 'n' crazy escapade to another.

Except ... that's the problem. The Fosters' various adventures and encounters aren't that wild 'n' crazy, nor are they very funny. Klausner's script actually works best when it remains serious, and allows Phil and Claire to figure out ways to survive the night and turn the tables on their pursuers.

And the most successfully played scenes involve Phil and Claire's steadfast devotion to each other. Carell can be quite persuasive when he turns on the romantic charm, as he demonstrated in 2007's Dan in Real Life. At times here, Carell's Phil is genuinely touching; you can't help adoring him for what he eventually admits about the book club he and Claire have been part of for some undetermined time.

Alternatively, some of the sequences designed to be "utterly hilarious" represent flop sweat at its worst: none more jaw-droppingly dreadful than a sidebar encounter in a seedy brothel, when for reasons of contrived plot shenanigans (don't ask) Claire dons a revealing, bust-enhancing slut outfit and mimes copulation with a game but embarrassed Phil during a stripper pole dance.

This sequence goes on forever, and aside from being deadly dull  what in God's name was director Shawn Levy thinking?  makes rather a mockery of the film's PG-13 rating.

An inventive car chase involving a New York cabbie fares a bit better, but this sequence also runs a bit too long.

On the other hand, Mark Wahlberg is quite amusing as Holbrooke, a bemused and oddly resourceful "security expert" whom Claire impulsively contacts, recalling his profession from when she showed him a series of homes awhile back, in her capacity as a real estate agent. Holbrooke answers the door shirtless  it is the middle of the night, after all  and Phil's eyes go wide as he registers the way his usually staid wife lights up in this well-muscled stud's presence.

Wahlberg seems to have resisted Levy's demands that everybody in this film overplay their parts; Holbrooke is engaging precisely because Wahlberg keeps things low-key.

The film also benefits greatly from Taraji P. Henson's co-starring presence as an NYPD detective who, brought into the crazy affair early on, sifts through the pieces in her own resourceful manner. Henson, memorably Oscar-nominated for her work in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, brings considerable class to these proceedings.

It becomes blindingly clear, as Date Night clumsily lurches from one scene to the next, that it should have been a primarily "straight" thriller with mild comedic touches: more in the vein of, say, Hitchcock's North by Northwest. Levy's hammer-handed, overly broad Pink Panther/Night at the Museum sensibilities are all wrong here.

The smell of mild desperation also creeps into the outtakes that accompany the closing credits, which seem to have been included simply because, well, one is supposed to. Uh ... no. These outtakes feel as contrived as the scenes they spring from, as if Levy encouraged his cast to go off-book specifically for this purpose.

The supporting cast includes several familiar faces, some in eye-blink cameos: Mark Ruffalo, Kristen Wiig, James Franco, Mila Kunis, William Fichtner and Ray Liotta. These are mostly paycheck performances, although Franco and Kunis are mildly amusing as the actual Tripplehorns.

Date Night has its occasional charms, starting with the near-perfect pairing of Carell and Fey. Too bad the film doesn't live up to their talent.

Or our expectations.

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