A broadly promising premise and well-matched stars prove no match for an abominably unfunny screenplay and the work of the poisonously untalented Shawn Levy—arguably the worst director making big-budget studio films today—insuring that Date Night will be more like a Date Nightmare for opening weekend unfortunates. Even fans of the film’s stars will find themselves compelled to warn away friends and family, creating a certain social networking dilemma for distributor Fox that should throw a wrench into the picture’s opening weekend and all but doom eventual DVD prospects as well.
Family responsibility guilt-trips are certainly not new content for studio films. In most cases (e.g. Jingle All the Way, Hook, Liar Liar, Imagine That) the films center around neglectful, workaholic fathers who eventually learn to appreciate their families, suggesting a built-in wish-fulfillment surrogate for the soulless agents and studio execs that had hands in greenlighting said films in the first place. Date Night alters the premise ever so slightly to encompass a fortysomething New Jersey couple, Phil and Claire Foster (Tina Fey and Steve Carell), whose daily routine (he’s an accountant, she’s a realtor) and two young children leave them only their weekly date night to escape the mundane. But even date night has become mundane over the years, a potential risk to the relationship that hits home when Phil and Claire discover that two of their closest friends are splitting up. Determined to shake things up on their next date, they head to Manhattan and crash a table at a swank new restaurant by impersonating an absentee couple. Unluckily, the absentee couple comes with some shady baggage that falls squarely into the Fosters’ laps when they suddenly find themselves pursued by a pair of thugs demanding that they return a local mobster’s stolen flash drive. That in turn sets in motion a series of events that grow progressively more dangerous, increasingly more absurd and harrowingly more dim-witted as the evening progresses.
In fairness, it’s easy to see why the brass at Fox would spark to the premise—midnight misadventures have anchored literally dozens of popular films, from the quirky After Hours to the dreadful Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle to the ’80s cult classic Adventures in Babysitting. Add a few shamelessly pillaged elements from North by Northwest and it should be a high-concept no-brainer. To their immense discredit, however, director Levy (who originated the project), screenwriter Josh Klausner (Shrek Forever After) and their Fox enablers seem to think they can coast on the strength of premise and cast, their ill-conceived and catastrophically unfunny script bolstered by Fey and Carell’s natural charms and clever ad-libs (outtakes of which round out the end titles). It is, quite simply, Hollywood hubris at its very worst, the kind of woefully misbegotten exercise that could only have been wrought by silver-spooned tinseltown gargoyles too hopelessly anchored to their cathedral perches to ever really comprehend what passes for reality below.
Having previously deployed his murderous ability to bludgeon the comedy right out of Steve Martin (twice) and Ben Stiller (twice), Levy here lays waste to two very skilled performers whose combined talents presently anchor NBC’s award-winning Thursday-night lineup, cementing his reputation as the comedic equivalent of the Bubonic plague. What’s genuinely sad is that Carell and Fey really do manifest an effecting screen chemistry—a chemistry that a more capable director, graced with a more intelligent script, might be able to exploit should the pairing be given another chance. Here’s hoping that chance comes sooner rather than later.
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Cast: Steve Carell, Tina Fey, Mark Wahlberg, Taraji P. Henson, Common and Ray Liotta
Director: Shawn Levy
Screenwriter: Josh Klausner
Producers: Shawn Levy and Tom McNulty
Rating: PG-13 for sexual and crude content throughout, language, some violence and a drug reference.
Running time: 87 min.
Release date: April 9, 2010