Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Date Night Might Not Be This Year's The Hangover, But It's Still Fun!

The Good: Funny, Decent acting, Generally good character development
The Bad: Entirely predictable
The Basics: A lot of fun, Date Night is a worthwhile comedy, despite being largely unsurprising.

Let’s be honest: anyone who saw The Hangover a few years back and loves comedy has been looking for the movie that can be dubbed this year’s The Hangover. As much as one might want, considering how it teams brilliant comedians Steve Carell and Tina Fey, Date Night is not this year’s surprise hit comedy that everyone must see. It is entertaining, it is enjoyable and it even has moments when it is surprisingly smart, but it does not have the same enduring quality or surprise wackiness of The Hangover.

That said, Date Night is a great choice for a comedy film now that it is out on DVD. Why? It is funny and as a PG-13 movie, it is allowed to use the f-word once and it chooses its moment remarkably well. My wife and I made a date of Date Night and I enjoyed it at least as much as she did, in part because she had not seen a single preview and was surprised by the abrupt right turn the movie takes and I had the chance to enjoy her reactions. Unfortunately, for those who have seen the previews, you’ve pretty much seen the film, though there are still plenty of laughs to be had in the full feature.

Phil and Claire Foster are a loving couple who have gotten into the rut that stable marriage with the burdens of children naturally leave one in. They are awakened by their children loudly and Claire’s enduring method of dealing with things is demanding the children stop their bad behaviors by the count of three. The Fosters have a date night at the same restaurant each week where they have the salmon and make up stories about the other patrons of the restaurant before returning home to not make love. After a book club meeting where Claire and Phil separately learn their friends are getting a divorce, they begin to question the strength of their own marriage.

For Phil, this inspires him to bring Claire into the City for a dinner unlike any they usually have and their date night looks like it will be a bust when they go to the trendy new restaurant, Claw, and discover they truly needed a reservation to get any attention, much less service. But, when Phil notices a couple did not show, he and Claire take their reservation and are seated. This takes a turn for the bizarre and horrible when Collins and Armstrong show up, pull them out into an alley and demand they return a flash drive they have stolen. Their lives suddenly in jeopardy from the case of mistaken identity, Phil and Claire set out to try to recover the stolen hard drive and get it back to the mob in order to save their lives and the lives of their children. Aided by a parallel police investigation and a shirtless security consultant named Holbrooke, Phil and Claire struggle to survive their date night.

The mistaken identity plot aside, what is actually the most predictable aspect of Date Night is the character arcs, but it does not lessen the overall enjoyment of the film. Going into Date Night, the viewer knows it is not one of those movies that is going to surprise the audience excessively. So, no matter how many times a gun is pushed in Phil's face, the menace is never so believable that we think the movie is actually going to try to be funny after blowing Phil's brains out. So, of course, the humor comes from how Phil and Claire get out of so many life-threatening situations and the results are often funny in a very cartoonish way. This involves fleeing in a boat and a car chase sequence that is downright entertaining.

As well, the film pokes the usual stabs at politicians and uses its not-Hollywood good-looking protagonist to poke fun at the Hollywood good looks of Holbrooke (played by Mark Wahlberg). For the political humor, William Fichtner plays DA Frank Crenshaw and he is wonderfully smarmy in the role. The DA who is cleaning up the streets with the aid of a prop broom becomes the source of a vast number of jokes in the final act and they work. But once the plot is fully exposed - i.e. what is on the flash drive the mobster wants recovered - there are truly few surprises left. Date Night becomes an almost formulaic comedy kept buoyant on the talents of Steve Carell and Tina Fey.

And in them, director Shawn Levy finds a winning combination, though he mostly uses them to simply play to their strengths. Carell plays deadpan and pulls off manic when he has to, having Phil yell in the face of danger more than once. Fey lights up the screen when she has the opportunity to play straight to her own physical comedy - i.e. removing her saliva-covered retainer or awkwardly pole dancing. She plays a far less intelligent version of herself in Claire, as Claire doubts herself and constantly needs things explained to her, but Fey manages to pull the droning down off and it works. So, Fey is not, for example, simply playing her character from 30 Rock (season 1 review is available by clicking here!).

What truly works are the quiet character moments between Phil and Claire. For sure, the character arcs are predictable from the moment Phil learns that his friends are getting divorced, in part, because they have fallen into a rut. Phil is smart enough to recognize that he and Claire are in a stable pattern and he does what he can to change that. The moments where Date Night allows Phil and Claire to acknowledge both the strengths and struggles that come with being in a stable romantic relationship lends the film a sense of realism that is seldom seen outside high drama and Carell and Fey nail it.

It is also worth noting that Taraji P. Henson makes great use of her few scenes as Detective Arroyo. Arroyo is the police detective the Fosters end up confessing to, before realizing that there are cops on the mob payroll. Arroyo figures out quickly what is going on and even who in the department is at fault. Henson's performance is so good, so deftly executed that the film never needs to stop and have Arroyo say "I suspect you two goons!" Henson's body language and mannerisms are so expressive that we know she is suspicious before she ever makes an accusation.

Finally, for those who go see Date Night, some of the funniest bits are in the closing credits and when Fey gets Carell to laugh in some of the outtakes, it is hard not to die laughing with him. Date Night might not be perfect, but it is solidly entertaining and worth watching, especially for married couples in a rut.

For other works featuring William Fichtner, please check out my reviews of:
The Dark Knight
The West Wing - Season 5


For other movie reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2010 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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