In the realm of faceless people writing about movies from the safety of the internet, I like to think I’m one of the more reasonable you’ll find. But I could be wrong. (See?) It’s a point that’s come up before, but it bears repeating: Unlike most people who write about movies online, I’ve spent A LOT of time working in all corners of the film and television industries in virtually every position there is. I know well how hard people work, around the clock, to bring every show to an audience. I try not to take that hard-earned knowledge lightly. Besides, I have friends who still work in film and TV, and I’m not even all the way out myself. I try mighty hard not to put anything on a computer screen that I don’t feel ready to say to someone’s face. On top of all of that, I grew up with movies. I love this stuff as much now as I did when I was young — if not more. It doesn’t make me happy to be unkind. I’m in this to share my enthusiasm, plain and simple.
All of that said, and try as I might, it’s way harder to find new ways to be nice. It’s certainly harder to be funny that way. And sometimes, a movie is put in front of me about which I just can’t find much nice to say and still remain honest.
These are the movies that forced me to be unkind.
This is from April 12th, 2010:
The reason to see Date Night is exactly the reason you expect it will be. Actually, it’s two reasons – Tina Fey and Steve Carell – two very, very good reasons. These are quite possibly the two most lovable comedy stars in America at the moment, blending a broad audience appeal with the sharpest of comic sensibilities. Seriously, if you can come up with a single reason to dislike either Fey or Carell, it’s time for you to get hit with the defibrillator. They were both bred in the fabled Second City comedy troupe in Chicago, hit big with Saturday Night Live and The Daily Show (respectively), then moved onto movies and 30 Rock and The Office (respectively) — these are people with the highest caliber of expertise at their craft, but both possessed of the kind of innate likability that just can’t be taught.
It’s interesting to watch these two in Date Night, because while Fey has found great success in playing smart, and Carell has found great success in playing dumb, here they are both playing people who are resolutely normal – neither astoundingly smart but not hardly dumb, just plain average. They play Claire and Phil Foster, a nice couple of suburban parents from New Jersey, who on an increasingly rare date night in New York City get wrapped up in a scandalous whirlwind of corrupt politicians, corrupt cops, hustlers, gangsters, and strippers. The cast is stacked with small roles from old pros and recognizable faces: William Fichtner as a district attorney, Ray Liotta as a crime boss, Common as a glowering bad guy, Taraji Henson as a tough cop, Kristin Wiig and Mark Ruffalo as a neighbor couple headed for a split, James Franco and Mila Kunis as a couple of blackmailers, and Mark Wahlberg as a constantly shirtless James Bond type, an old acquaintance of Fey’s character. It really is a parade of extended cameos, but everyone is well-cast and everyone comes off well.
The less you know about the movie going in, the better. There’s not much here you haven’t seen before in many different ways, but the jokes and the set-pieces are occasionally innovative – or at least original and ingratiating enough to be entertaining. I’ve seen some reviews coming in on Date Night that slam the script, which is credited to Josh Klausner – that’s not really fair. This movie worked great on an audience – obviously when you have tremendous talents at hand like Tina Fey and Steve Carell, both terrific writers as well as practiced and meticulous comedians, you’re working at an advantage. But one of the movie’s signature scenes, where a fender-bender with a cab turns into a high-speed chase through the streets of New York with the two cars still attached, really blew up the audience and that’s a credit to the writing. Also to the script’s credit, it moves fairly quickly from the opening domestic scenes right into the main thrust of the story. (Not enough mainstream movies seem willing to do that.)
It’s more the direction of the film that leaves something to be desired. Shawn Levy is a director who takes a lot of criticism from the kind of movie fanatics who keep track of the names in the credits. He’s a guy who makes middle-of-the-road entertainments with huge stars, most recently the two Night At The Museum movies. I don’t have the same problem with the guy that many people of similar taste to me do – I think Shawn Levy makes effective enough movies that do the job they set out to do by obviously hitting a lot of demographics at once. He’s not an artist or a risk-taker but he’s not offensively, oppressively bad (compare this movie to Cop Out, for example) and Date Night is definitely his best movie so far… however much that says (or doesn’t) as a compliment.
I think where I agree with Shawn Levy’s critics is that his movies make me long for the days when true cinematic anarchists were holding the reins on huge-budget, huge-star comedies. Twenty or thirty years ago, guys like John Landis (Animal House, The Blues Brothers) and Ivan Reitman (Stripes, Ghostbusters) were working these kinds of movies. Nowadays, the really ballsy helmers are either working mostly in TV or animation, such as Trey Parker (Team America), or they’re being unfairly ignored by the majority of moviegoers, such as Jody Hill (Observe & Report). This may say more about the changing culture of big-budget moviemaking and marketing than it does about Shawn Levy’s personal taste or interests, but as one of the most successful yet somewhat anonymous filmmakers working today, he is somewhat representative of the change, fairly or not.
When you see Date Night (and I’m clearly not recommending strongly for or against it), just keep an eye out for the subplot with the DA and you’ll understand what I mean. Without giving much away, I’ll say that William Fichtner’s character is clearly inspired in part by former governor Elliot Spitzer’s shenanigans. Instead of going for the satire with teeth bared, the movie uses the character as a plot device and generally side-steps any assertive or resonant comedy that could have been. (You could argue that Date Night is a fairly soft PG-13 and so it shouldn’t be going for such adult material, but then again there are guns fired throughout the movie and one particularly lengthy scene takes place in a strip club, so there goes that argument.) Also, the pacing is noticeably more slack and muted than the great comedies tend to be – the feel of Date Night is very much watered-down and sanded edges. That begins and ends with the director.
But again, it’s Steve Carell and Tina Fey who are front and center, and they are predictably polished, energetic, and hilarious. They’re also a really great match onscreen, each one sympathetic and compelling and well-complemented by the other. They make you care about these somewhat underwritten characters, they make you believe the rare tender moments, and they make you want to see them stay together as a couple. I certainly wouldn’t care to see a sequel to this movie, but the pairing of these two stars almost demands a rematch, preferably in material that is somewhat more biting.
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