Sunday, April 11, 2010

Movie Review: "Date Night"

"Date Night" is proof that smart casting can make the difference between an enjoyable evening at the movies and a wasted $20.

It's not like the premise is that novel. The suburbanites'-crazy-night-in-the-big-bad-city comedy may not be a staple, but it's definitely familiar to anyone who's seen "Adventures in Babysitting," "After Hours," "Blind Date," or "The Out of Towners." And director Shawn Levy doesn't do too much to inspire confidence, either. I may have defended the first "Night at the Museum," but the man is also responsible for the Steve Martin "Pink Panther" debacle.

It would have been so easy--and may have been tempting--to take this exact same script, with the exact same director, and plug in Matthew McCounaghey and Kate Winslet or Vince Vaugh and Reese Witherspoon and wind up with a trite, vapid and lifeless comedy. But by putting two very smart, very funny actors at the helm and then peppering supporting roles with equally talented castmates, "Date Night" actually overcomes a mediocre script to become a consistently funny and enjoyable night out.

Steve Carrell and Tina Fey star as Phil and Claire Foster, a New Jersey couple trying to balance careers and parenting. The kids wake them up at the crack of dawn, starting a cycle of chores, routines and obligations. By the time the couple gets some quiet time to themselves, Phil's snore strip is already applied and Claire's retainer is in place, not that they have the energy to do anything. They're not an unhappy couple, just busy. Their one weekly reprieve is a book club, where they look at their divorcing friends (Mark Ruffalo and Kirsten Wiig) and wonder if it's ever possible that they could find themselves drifting apart and being just "really excellent roommates."

To keep the spark alive, Phil impulsively decides that on their upcoming date night they should skip their standard local steak-and-potatoes establishment and head out to a fancy Manhattan restaurant. They arrive to find the place booked and, when Phil hears a reservation going unclaimed, they pretend to be the missing couple. After a few glasses of wine, they're surprised to find themselves threatened in the alley by two thugs looking for the real couple, who are in possession of a flash drive (or, as Claire identifies it, "a computer sticky thing") being used to blackmail a gangster (Ray Liotta). If you're following me thus far, you've probably guessed that the Fosters spend their date night trying to evade the mob and find the missing flash drive. You probably don't even have to ask that whether or not their marriage will be strengthened as a result of this insanity.

It's always tricky when two talented and highly successful comedians team up. One usually ends up out-shining the other and the fight for laughs often derails any potential chemistry. So it's refreshing to see that Carrell and Fey have a fun rapport together, matching each other's wit without ever hogging the spotlight. Fey can find the humor in the most typical life moments--I particularly liked it when Claire frantically searches a computer for information, only to get stalled by the "rainbow wheel." Carrell plays Phil not as a buffoon, but as a smart, capable accountant terrified by facing things he only sees in movies ("He pointed the gun sideways! It's a kill shot!" he cries at one point) or emasculated by the ever-shirtless contact his wife goes to for help (Mark Wahlberg, whose few scenes are priceless).

As I pointed out before, this could have easily been another trite romantic comedy featuring good-looking movie stars giving reaction shots and otherwise sleepwalking through the plot. Carrell and Fey, however, are two very smart and funny individuals who excel and milking the humor out of ordinary life. I rarely felt that they were on autopilot; you can almost see their gears turning as they look for comic opportunities in every situation. Even a throwaway line like Claire's exclamation of "look, it's, from...Fergie" gets a big laugh because it's the perfect way a suburban mother would probably remember it. The two even get a few quiet moments together to discuss their marital stresses and manage to elicit some real tenderness and chemistry without grounding the movie to a halt. It's almost enough to make you wish the gunplay and car chases would disappear and we'd see the two in a smart, low-key comedy.

Thankfully, the leads aren't the only areas in which "Date Night's" casting director was thinking smart. Several supporting roles are also given to very funny, able comedians, which keeps the pace fast and funny. I've already mentioned Wahlberg as the always-shirtless stud Claire drools over, but James Franco and Mila Kunis actually steal the spotlight from Carrell and Fey as the couple Phil and Claire are mistaken for. They portray kind of a scuzzy, white-trash version of the Fosters, and watching Carrell and Franco bicker back and forth is good fun, and it made me remember just how great Franco is in comedic roles; I'm surprised he hasn't been cast in more since "Pineapple Express." Liotta and William Fichtner also make the most of their small roles. I was even happy to see J.B. Smoove--the best thing about the last two seasons of "Curb Your Enthusiasm"--show up as a terrified cabbie whose car ends up welded to the Fosters'.

The few action sequences are clearly filler and, honestly, drag the film a's funnier when Fey and Carrell are allowed to banter. I don't know if it's a compliment to say that Levy does his best when he simply stands back and lets the stars do what they need to, but that's what seems to work here. The film doesn't really break new ground or try to reach "Hangover"-levels of hilarity.

But that's actually kind of refreshing, particularly three weeks after "Hot Tub Time Machine" continued to try and out-raunch other movies. "Date Night" plays to the mainstream and its kind of nice to see a film getting some smart laughs instead of cheap guffaws. Is it a great movie? No, and I'd argue that both Carrell and Fey have been involved with better material (the best of "30 Rock" and "The Office" are often funnier than most movie comedies).

But sometimes you don't need greatness. Sometimes you just want to sit in the theater and have an enjoyable time that doesn't require your buttons being pushed or your sensibilities being offended. If the mark of a successful comedy is that it actually makes you laugh and recommend it to your friends, "Date Night" succeeds. Fey and Carrell will both go on to do much better work, but for now, you can enjoy this night with them without feeling guilty walking home.

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30s, engaged and living in Motown. Wrestling with life, love, faith, art, film, culture and everything in between.