DIR: Shawn Levy
CAST: Steve Carell, Tina Fey, Mark Wahlberg
Date Night has a lot going for it. Its stars, Steve Carell and Tina Fey, are both big TV stars, and both recognisable faces in cinema as well, but more than that, both of them are genuinely funny. Casting them as a married couple seems so natural that it’s almost a surprise that nobody had done it until now and the setup for the film; Carell and Fey as Phil and Claire Foster, a middle aged couple whose relationship has lost a little spark, attempting to fix it with one adventurous date night, promises plenty of interesting situations for them to mine laughs from. It is, then, a bit of a shame that the film loses sight of this premise relatively early on, and feels the need to bolt on an action comedy to what was a rather engaging rom-com.
The film’s first twenty minutes are its best. Carell and Fey play really well off one another, and though neither is exactly renowned as a dramatic actor they do establish a believable marriage, going through a believable seven year itch. They’re also very funny together, without really overplaying it. In a nicely played early scene they invent a dialogue between the couple a few tables over from them in their regular date night restaurant, it’s funny, but in a naturalistic sort of way. There is some of this in the latter part of the film, and whenever the movie slows down for those low key moments between Phil and Claire (as in a scene on the subway when Fey confuses the terms ‘Whacked off’ and ‘Whacked’) work nicely. It’s never gut bustingly funny, but those moments never failed to make me smile, and they hint at the rather better film that Date Night might have been had Levy and screenwriter Josh Klausner not over complicated things with stolen flash drives, corrupt cops and car chases.
In and of themselves, many of those things work well. The car chase, for instance, which has the car that Phil and Claire are in wedged to a taxi, is pretty damn exciting, and efficiently shot by Levy (who, on the evidence of this and the equally fine Night at the Museum 2, doesn’t deserve the reputation that he seems to have developed online as something of a hack), but it feels like it belongs in a different film. When Phil and Claire are asking a shirtless Mark Wahlberg for help, the discomfort that Phil feels when confronted by this man to whom his wife is clearly attracted is real and funny, but when he’s actually helping them, by triangulating the mobile phone signal of the people Phil and Claire believe have a stolen flash drive, again it starts to feel like we’re watching a new movie. A scene in which Phil and Claire are forced to dance in a strip club is also funny (and Fey, it has to be said, looks great) but again, it just doesn’t feel like it belongs. Despite having only one credited screenwriter, Date Night often feels like a film written by committee, every producer weighing in with their own funny thing that could happen to the Fosters, creating a patchwork of scenes that never quite feel like a whole.
Carell and Fey are both excellent, and that the film hangs together at all is testament to their chemistry and their individual talents (I suspect, and the outtakes at the end would seem to attest, that many of the funniest lines in the film are improvised). Despite the bitty nature of the film and its ultimate shallowness, Carell and Fey forge enough of a connection that I did find myself caring about Phil, Claire and their relationship, so much so that I wished that were more what the film was about. The rest of the cast contribute cameo roles, some recurring, others for single scenes. There are disappointments; a boring Common and Jimmi Simpson as corrupt cops, and an equally dull Taraji P Henson as a virtuous cop, to say nothing of the fact that the hilarious Kristen Wiig is given very little to do. There are, however, also star turns among the cameoing celebs, chiefly James Franco and Mila Kunis, who are extremely funny as the criminals whose restaurant reservation the Fosters steal and the aforementioned Wahlberg, who has a one joke role that manages to stay funny.
Date Night may be messy, but it’s always diverting despite that, and when it comes together it really is funny, and sometimes rather sweet. If we get to see the Fosters again though, I’d rather they didn’t have to get involved in a car chase.