April 15, 2010

Entertaining Enough for a Date Night

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Steve Carell and Tina Fey were NBC’s reigning drama queen and comedy king … respectively. They had the Thursday night lineup going, that is, until Community and Parks and Recreation came along and staged a coup this past year. Casting the two as a married couple in the Shawn Levy film Date Night? Comedy bullion, right? Not quite, but also not for the reasons one would expect. What we get is an interesting combination of The Hangover and Couples Retreat, without the strain of the former and with way more jokes than the latter. Basically, Date Night is an absurd sequence of rapidly escalating ludicrous events while also serving as a poignant commentary-dissertation on the deconstruction of the American matrimonial exhibit. Carell plays personal investment banker Phil Foster, and Fey is his tepidly married wife Claire, a realtor in a dying New Jersey housing market. The two have the American dream home and two lovable-yet-chokable children. They spend their weekly evening away from the kids going through the motions at the local restaurant, ordering the usual and making humorous comments about the couples around them. Their best friends (played amiably by Mark Ruffalo and the ever-dependable Kristen Wiig) are contemplating divorce. Claire is worried about ending up like her friend, not seeking adventurous three-way sex with strangers, but perhaps ordering potato skins and salmon every week from the same place. There’s a beautiful scene where Claire puts some real effort into dressing up for Phil. Fey’s dramatic chops prairie-dog for a brief moment, and our heart skips a beat when Phil returns from work, exhausted, and makes a beeline for the kids, without noticing. But notice he does. And the date night begins. The two hire a babysitter (Leighton Meester, TV’s Gossip Girl) and venture into the Manhattan nightlife to wing their chances at a table at Claw, a seafood restaurant so ritzy that people reserve weeks ahead of time, and the maître d answers the phone with “You’re welcome.” In a moment of vicarious living, the two hear an unclaimed reservation and claim it, stealing the spot of the Tripplehorns. When two thugs arrive at the table (Jimmi Simpson and rapper Common), and ask them to vacate the restaurant in threatening whispers, the Fosters find it hilarious. Until they get out to the alleyway and the guns come out. This is the part of the film the trailer has given away to fill the theater seats. Somehow, we get from an awkward misunderstanding in an alleyway, where the Tripplehorns are an alias for some seedy folk involved in a scandal that ropes in a mob boss (played reliably by Ray Liotta) and a sexual deviant district attorney (William Fichtner, The Dark Knight), to ridiculous car chases, gunfights and a shirtless Mark Wahlberg. This is where the comparisons to The Hangover appear. The film becomes a vehicle for two funny people to react in funny ways to increasingly ridiculous situations. A lot of the dialogue is obviously ad-libbed by Fey and Carell, and a lack of editing shows … in that some of the lines fall flat. Random isn’t necessarily funny, as Hot Rod proved years ago and TV’s Aqua Teen Hunger Force continues to remind. The trailer ruined the humor and action plots for everyone. I’ll spoil the rest and say there’s a pretty awkward strip club scene too, although Fey surprises us yet again with her versatility … meaning she dances and carries on in ways one wouldn’t expect from Liz Lemon or Ms. Norbury. The ending is a predictable wrap. What remains is a powerful sense of hope for the middle-aged couple in all of us (what?), and how a little variety, and maybe some breaking/entering, impersonation, police chases through New York and liberal stripper pole licking can add spice to life and help you remember or realize the person by your side was, at one point, your best partner in crime.

3.5 Towers

Original Author: Naushad Kabir