Monday, April 12, 2010

Date Night

Not great but not half bad, Date Night is a soothingly predictable fable about the appeal of predictability.

This is one of those movies where nice middle-class people from the suburbs or a small town get jolted out of a comfortable routine when they fall into an adventure, usually in a big city. This time around, as is often the case, the main characters are a married couple who need to add a little spice to a marriage grown bland.

It’s no wonder so many of us love these movies so much. They provide thrills by pretending to celebrate change and adventure, but their moral is always the same audience-flattering message. As Dorothy put it, in perhaps the most famous of all the involuntary adventure movies: “There’s no place like home.”

Date Night starts well by giving us Steve Carell and Tina Fey as Phil and Claire Foster of Teaneck, New Jersey. Their home is a combat zone, between the two kids cannonballing onto their bed and the drawers Phil keeps leaving open for Claire to bang into, a recurring theme that stands for all the little things he does that drive her nuts.

But the two really love – and like – each other. We like them, too, and believe in their chemistry, since Carell and Fey both bring genuine warmth, self-mocking humor, and an appealingly low-key, low-drama brand of sanity to their roles. These two seem like real grown-ups, an endangered species in Hollywood movies – especially comedies – these days.

Josh Klausner’s so-so script and Shawn Levy’s equally uninspired direction don’t give the actors much to work with, so they have to manufacture almost all their own appeal and romantic wistfulness. If the outtakes at the end are typical of what happened on the set, they improvised a lot of their lines too. That’s not a bad way to go when you’re working with comic talents like the two leads, not to mention supporting players like Kristen Wiig and J.B. Smoove, but the results are too often slack, delivering half-funny lines or one of those moments where someone says something that was meant to be funny but doesn’t quite come out right and then laughs at the wrongness of it. I like sharing that kind of laugh with a friend, but I expect a little more from a romantic comedy.

Some of the physical humor is half-baked, too. A pole dance by the Fosters that’s supposed to be an uproarious set piece, for instance, is awkward enough to be genuinely painful to watch.

A pole dance? I guess you need a little plot so you know how they got there. But not too much, since the plot is never the point in these movies.

Claire and Phil are about to go to a movie for their weekly date night when, spooked by the news that some good friends are getting divorced, they decide to splurge on a trendy Manhattan restaurant instead.

Sent to purgatory at the bar (the filmmakers get in some good digs at the snotty staff), they get a table by poaching the reservation of another couple who didn’t show up. But that couple turns out to be hoarding something that some bad guys want. Before they can even finish their truffle risotto, the Fosters find themselves on the run, dodging guys with guns while figuring out what’s going on and how to get out of this mess alive. Meanwhile, they encounter the requisite characters and make a few pit stops to discuss and revive their relationship.

There’s some mildly funny stuff about a bare-chested Mark Wahlberg (the men who encounter him keep trying to get him to put on a shirt, while the women keep admiring the view) and a lively scene with James Franco and Mila Kunis as the couple whose reservation the Fosters took, which gives the movie a welcome jolt of genuine unpredictability and manic energy.

Now and then the Fosters waken the ghosts of old romantic comedies that make this one feel pretty anemic, like when Phil and Claire invent dialogue for strangers in a restaurant, a low-rent version of a brilliant bit by Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve, or when Claire offers up a pale variation on the famous line about Ginger Rogers, telling Phil: “Everything you’re doing, I’m doing in heels.”

But in the end, the actors’ charm and the appeal of the genre carry us to shore on a warm wave of goodwill. If the Fosters had gone to a movie as planned on their date night, they could have happily seen one just like this. It would have given them a few laughs and made them feel good about their marriage, and what’s not to like about that?

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