Eugene Weekly : Movies : 4.15.10


Book Club Heroes
New Jersey’s most boring couple
by Jason Blair

DATE NIGHT: Directed by Shawn Levy. Written by Josh Klausner. Cinematography, Dean Semler. Music,Christophe Beck. Starring Steve Carell, Tina Fey, Mark Wahlberg, Taraji P. Henson, James Franco and Mila Kunis. 20th Century Fox, 2010. PG-13. 88 minutes.

Tina Fey, Steve Carell and Mark Wahlberg in Date Night

Once a week, Tina Fey lights up the dying star that is NBC with 30 Rock, a show about her experience at Saturday Night Live. Fey plays Liz Lemon, a frumpy and diminutive producer of a comedy sketch program, but the show is more about organizing egos than writing skits. 30 Rock is the kind of comedy that, when it doesn’t have you laughing out loud, has you seeing stars from its dizzying verbal patter, like a Dennis Miller rant before his sanity deserted him. In addition to having some of the smartest, most densely referential material on television, 30 Rock is one of the most critically lauded — a record 22 Emmy nominations in one year — and least watched shows in recent memory, rating just ahead of something called Accidentally on Purpose. That hasn’t kept Tina Fey from becoming a household name, in large part thanks to her portrayal of Sarah Palin, an act that was bound to result in more feature films for the gifted writer and actress. 

Despite what you thought of Mean Girls, films haven’t been kind to Fey, and Date Night continues her run of just-above-average material. In Date Night, she stars opposite Steve Carell, who in contrast to Fey has been overexposed at the movies, but whose television work rivals Fey’s in that both play lovable losers whose subordinates don’t respect them. Thus, their pairing in Date Night was inevitable. They play a couple trapped in their routines who decide to revive their marriage, only to be mistaken for gangsters when they steal a table at a swanky restaurant. Fey plays Claire Foster, a gingery, mildly controlling mother of two children, while Carell plays Phil, her emasculated husband. While their chemistry is undeniable, director Shawn Levy (the Night at the Museum films) doesn’t allow for the kind of improvisation — or at least, an improvised feel — in which these actors might feel more at home. Date Night is a settled, set-piece comedy that works more often than it should; when it does, it’s because of Fey and Carell’s ability to create space where none exists.

Writer Josh Klausner (Shrek the Third) forces thriller elements into the comedy, which aren’t thrilling and throw off the comedy. As you would expect, the Fosters do their share of running and hiding, but to survive they must face down their captors (Common and Jimmi Simpson) and their captors’ boss (Ray Liotta) just outside their comfort zone: in this case, a secret sex club. Rounding out the cast are James Franco and Mila Kunis, who steal the movie in a brief appearance as the couple the Fosters originally impersonated, as well as Holbrooke (Mark Wahlberg), whose oiled torso gets more screen time than necessary. In fact, two of the funniest bits in Date Night involve Phil’s overwhelming insecurity in the presence of Holbrooke, who plays, of all things, a security expert. Phil keeps finding new ways to ask Holbrooke to put on a shirt, finally summing up his jealousy by asking, “Do you really need muscles on your shoulders?” While Date Night is years beyond the rumpus room of infantile comedies in constant release, the kind usually starring Will Ferrell or Vince Vaughn, it does allow for moments of quiet reflection. To its credit, Date Night happens to be about something: loneliness in a relationship. You just wish it were a little weirder along the way.