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Date Night Review

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by Casimir Harlow Sep 22, 2010

    Date Night Review
    I adored the UK Gervais TV Show, The Office, so much, that when I heard there was a US remake in the works, I steered well clear. I avoided it for years – the fourth season was airing before I was even tempted to delve into the prior three, which happened to be on special offer in the shops. By that point I’d seen a fair few Steve Carell movies and loved the guy in his own right – 40 Year Old Virgin was hilarious, as was his smaller part in Anchorman, and he had proved himself to have considerably more range, than just expertly sarcastic comedian, with Little Miss Sunshine and Dan in Real Life. Sure, his lacklustre sequel to Jim Carrey’s Bruce Almighty, Evan Almighty, was more for kids than adults – but he had nevertheless definitely grown into one of American’s most likeable comedy performers. And I’d heard great things about the US Office. So, why not?
    Needless to say, the first few episodes jarred, being practically facsimile versions of the UK series – exactly the same script even! But, after a while, a strange thing happened. The US Office went its own route, deviating from its British foundation and – though taking things in much the same direction ultimately – creating some interesting characters of its own. Most importantly, however, these characters were actually likeable. Unlike Gervais’ painfully nasty office boss, or his weasely, inept 2nd lieutenant, the US Office had managed to make even the stupidest, most frustrating characters, quite innocent and guileless on the inside. And, consequently, quite likeable. What this meant was that the new Office could just run and run (unlike the UK version, which was too painful to go on much beyond 12 episodes), hitting the 100-episode mark earlier this year. Even though it’s fantastic, I can see why Carell has decided to leave – they have to end it sometime, and his career has arguably been overwhelmed by it – but I’m not entirely sure what he is going to do instead. He may have made a few decent comedies, but nothing as consistently hilarious as The Office. So can he recover the magic by pairing up with fellow comedian Tina Fey, for Date Night?
    Claire and Phil Foster are your average, ordinary married couple; a decade into their relationship and with two small kids to keep them occupied. Their daily routines consist of being woken at 5 by the children, struggling through the morning to get them ready for school and get ready for work, getting through their busy days – Phil as a lawyer, Claire as an Estate Agent – returning to survive the children in the evening, and then crashing out around 11 to desperately get a few hours’ sleep before the horror repeats itself. It’s a tough routine, and they are well and truly stuck in it. Every week they have ‘date night’, which is supposed to keep the romance alive but has – in its own way – become much a part of the routine for them: they go to the same restaurant, order the same food, and are still home by 9:30pm to relieve the babysitter and get some sleep. But after hearing that friends of theirs – another supposedly strong, long-term married couple – are suddenly separating (the wife announces that she is ‘strangling in the noose of sameness’), the seed of doubt is sown in their minds: perhaps there are flaws in their own stagnant relationship... Making that extra effort, Phil and Claire decide to go into the City (New York) for dinner on one ‘date night’, and eat at a very posh restaurant. But a case of mistaken identity ensures that this night is not going to go at all according to plan for this particular married couple.
    Date Night is a mixed bag of a movie, which starts off quite promisingly – by taking a poignantly funny look at the dangerously monotonous routine of married-with-kids life – before it suddenly lapses into North by NorthWest territory, except much, much sillier. The comedic action setpieces that ensue range from smirk-worthy to the predictably yawn-worthy, with a smattering of laugh-out-loud moments (you can count them on one hand) along the way. This isn’t such a bad thing for a comedy, and it is a reasonably entertaining 97 minute romp (although in the UK we only get the 10-minute longer extended cut, so I’m not sure whether the Theatrical Edition was a leaner version), but it is certainly not the kind of thing that stands up alongside the likes of The Hangover, Knocked Up and Superbad.
    Steve Carell does well to – for the most part – eschew his standard ‘The Office/Michael Scott’ behaviour, and makes for a likeable enough husband; if anything Tina Fey’s wife has more foibles, but the funniest scenes in the movie are a mix of ad-lib moments and scenes where Carell does indeed lapse into Michael Scott territory (there’s a hilarious bit where he thinks it’s a good idea to do a Barry White impression over an intercom to throw the police of the scent – and even he knows it’s a bad idea). Ultimately, liking them as a couple from the outset, you largely tolerate the random events that befall them – even if Cary Grant did it better in North by NorthWest – and enjoy the sporadic humour on offer. And just when it feels like things are dragging a little bit (like when they are held in a boathouse) and the scene appears to get too serious for its own good, they inject just enough humour (the boat) to make the scene work. You’ll chuckle to yourself and suddenly, without realising, find yourself sucked back into the movie again.
    The biggest missed opportunity comes in the form of the numerous familiar faces who take up bit parts in this film. Both rapper Common and Goodfellas’ Ray Liotta take themselves far too seriously, the latter in his standard Mafioso role, but when Mark Wahlberg pops up you really do expect his part to be a little more than just incidentally funny. Sure, it allows Carell to make a couple of gags, and Fey to ogle Wahlberg’s pecs, and it does have one great Minority Report ‘homage’, but I’d have expected more from Wahlberg – especially considering his upcoming partnership with Will Ferrell for The Other Guys (which looks superb) – and he feels like one of the bigger wasted supporting characters. As I’ve stated, Common and his criminal partner just play to stereotype, as does Liotta, William Fichtner is just plain odd, and even James (Spiderman) Franco and Mila (Book of Eli) Kunis – who get just one scene – don’t allow for particularly memorable hilarity. The only good addition is the taxi driver – J. B. Smooth – whose facial gestures and, frankly, screaming, are hilarious in and of themselves.
    All in all, there will be moments in Date Night when you do laugh out loud (the bit where they send up posh restaurants and their pretentious clientele was, without a doubt, the best scene), and fans of Steve Carell (and Fey) will likely find enough chemistry and humorousness here to give it a watch. If you don’t like any of the ingredients, they you may not like the whole package, and even those who are interested because of the two lead characters may find that they have to go in with reasonably low expectations – this isn’t a masterful gem from two veteran comic performers, it’s a sporadically funny, generally enjoyable ride which neither deserves a place amidst some of the better comedies over the last couple of years, not warrants being discarded with the (often Jennifer Aniston-starring) misfires. Not bad, but could have been a lot better.