Shawn Levy hasn’t exactly been on my personal watch-list of directors in recent years. Night at the Museum didn’t do anything for me, and I literally did not crack a smile watching his 2006 Pink Panther film. But Date Night was a surprisingly fun comedy that, while silly at some points, has an undeniable charm to it. There are way worse things to see in a theater right now, so if you haven’t seen How To Train Your Dragon yet, I’d say give it a shot.
I wasn’t thrilled about seeing this film. My apprehension began with my first viewing of the trailer, filled with broad comedy, a tired “marriage in a rut” premise, and a “one crazy night” structure which seemed painfully middle-of-the-road. I didn’t think the film could overcome these elements and rise above its central conceit, but I was wrong. Carell and Fey elevate the material much higher than it has any right to be, and their performances (their chemistry, in particular) allows us to put aside notions of legitimacy and overlook ridiculous plot details in the hopes of seeing these lovable characters work out their problems and live to see the light of the next day.
Carell and Fey are goofy and honest as Phil and Claire Foster, a New Jersey couple whose marriage is beginning to stagnate. They are very much in love, but thanks to busy work schedules (he’s a tax advisor, she’s a realtor) and the daily routine of raising their three kids, they have lost a bit of the spark that brought them together. Most of the film’s heart shines through these characters in little moments: on their regular date night at the local steakhouse, they play games with each other, humorously creating backstories and dialogue for other couples in the restaurant. Spurred into action after learning of their friends’ impending divorce, Phil and Claire deviate from their normal Jersey steakhouse and head for an exclusive restaurant in Manhattan. When they assume the identity of “the Tripplehorns” to snag a table, a case of mistaken identity throws our heroes straight into film noir territory, complete with dirty cops, corrupt public officials, low level thugs, and everything in between.
The side characters aren’t quite as entertaining as the leads, but they hold just enough weight to earn their way past cameo status. Mark Wahlberg is funny as the perpetually shirtless Holbrooke Grant, a former client of Claire’s to whom the couple turn when they realize they’re in over their heads. Common (Smokin’ Aces) and Jimmi Simpson (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) are convincing as the goons chasing the Fosters/Tripplehorns, and small roles for James Franco and Mila Kunis don’t hinder their comedic performances in the least. There are appearances by other recognizable actors as well, but I won’t give those away since their presence is part of Date Night‘s charm.
As you might expect, things get absolutely ludicrous as the plot unfolds and the stakes are seemingly raised at every turn. But because we can relate to these characters and care about their plight (however ridiculous it may be), the film is an enjoyable ride to the sunrise and I was totally on board for the whole trip. Josh Klausner’s script provides consistent laughs mixed with “aww” moments of realization for Phil and Claire, and, aside from relying on a blatant deus ex machina at the climax of the film, is effective and well-crafted.
One of the aspects I enjoyed the most was how the film treated Phil and Claire’s relationship. They truly feel like a real couple, and even though the trailer features their kids jumping up and down on them to violently wake them up, the children are (thankfully) quickly banished in favor of the adult storyline. Their relationship felt organic and genuine, about as far from a Bill Engvall punchline as you can get.
As you’ve probably gathered, I liked Date Night quite a bit. I’m not claiming it’ll be one of my favorite films of the year by any means – in fact, I’m sure I’ll forget large chunks of it by this time next year. But this film did its job admirably: it entertained me, and it reintroduced me to Tina Fey’s comedic talent. Her performance and comedic timing may have convinced me to start watching NBC’s 30 Rock. Until next time…