Date Night, a Romantic Comedy Sans Romance and Comedy
"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 wild 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 mundane matrimony 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 tristate 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, the auteur behind the Night at the Museum franchise, 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, the process diluting each individual scene.
Within its jumble of genres, tones and styles, Date Night ultimately strains to be a serious movie about marriage, aiming to convince us that Carell and Fey's romantic compatibility is not to be laughed at. That this fails miserably is in large part 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 (movies that pull back from the couple to focus on male friendships with the potential to thwart or strangle the union—essentially suggesting that every relationship contains more than two people) and the increased emphasis on tragedy (Brokeback Mountain, every Nicholas Sparks movie) and/or taboo (Brokeback Mountain, pretty much every Nancy Meyers movie) in romantic films, 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 Hollywood 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 easily fail again. And that keeps things interesting.
Date Night doesn't dare deal with such danger. In one of its weakest running jokes, Carell and Fey are preoccupied with getting their "married-people stuff together," even when their lives are at risk—such as when they sit in a stolen sports car, batting around the question of their co-dependency. The joke is that, even when surrounded by excitement, Claire and Phil revert to being dull; in practice, their dullness is just dull. In a great romantic comedy, sex is the subtext of all conversation. In Date Night, the conversation is bland, the sex is left mainly to spies and criminals, and the subtext? That's apparently too much to ask of a boring couple from New Jersey.
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