Date Night (2010)

He's a tax lawyer. She's a realtor. Together they are... a boring suburban couple from New Jersey. Claire (Tina Fey) and Phil Foster (Steve Carell) have a nice, simple life. It's a pretty quiet life, except for the rambunctious kids. Friday night is date night, when the Fosters go to a local eatery where everybody knows their names. Ordinary. Routine. But when they find out that their friends (Mark Ruffalo and Kristen Wiig) are getting divorced, it gets them to thinking that maybe their lives are too quiet, and too routine. Which is how they end up at a tony Manhattan hotspot, swiping an unclaimed table reservation, which results in a severe case of mistaken identity. Turns out the no-show couple -- the Tripplehorns -- are wanted by a couple of thugs. Suddenly, recapture-the-romance date night turns into Date Night, the wacky marital action screwball comedy. 

The thugs (Jimmi Simpson and Common) demand a mysterious flash drive, wave guns around, and refuse to believe that the Fosters -- those table thieves! -- are not the Tripplehorns. Suddenly boring suburban routine isn't looking so bad. The thugs turn out to be crooked cops working for a local mafioso (Ray Liotta). Whatever. The plot is quite beside the point. It makes sense, in that each perilously wacky incident follows fom previous perilously wacky incidents, but really, you could throw Carell and Fey into a caper involving a Starbucks murder mystery, or a pencil factory corporate espionage caper and they could probably make it work. (Although come to think of it, Fey played an exec for a Whole Foods-esque company in *Baby Mama*, and it wasn't that funny.) The point is, Fey and Carell are likable, and the Fosters are likable, which makes it easy to care about what happens to them, even when what happens to them -- car chases, gun fights, strip club escapades -- is straight out of the been-there-done-that book.

Fey and Carell are best known for their TV roles on 30 Rock and The Office, respectively. They are both very funny people, but in Date Night, they more or less play it straight, in the screwball tradition. All hell breaks loose around them, and they remain the boring suburban couple from New Jersey, except they're on the lam in the big city, and a little overdressed for people who are crawling through hedges and climbing fire escapes. Almost everyone in Date Night plays it straight. This is not a jokey movie in which sarcastic people trade wisecracks. This is a movie in which the characters behave, for the most part, like human beings. Human beings in a fairly ridiculous and not entirely plausible situation, but believable human beings nonetheless.

Directed by Shawn Levy (Night at the Museum) and written by Josh Klausner, Date Night gets its laughs not from the overworked and half-baked plot, but from the characters. Claire and Phil are not the sort of people you would expect to find in this kind of situation, which is why it's funny that they're in it. They're dazed and confused and scared to death, which is the appropriate reaction to being chased by murderous hooligans. They don't have any remarkable crime-fighting talents, or unexpected skills. Claire and Phil are not in the urban wilderness all alone, however. Claire knows a guy -- a "security expert" named Holbrooke (Mark Wahlberg) -- who never wears a shirt, and has a fabulous bachelor pad filled with nifty spy gadgets. Wahlberg is funny just because he's shirtless -- and extremely buff -- which is not in itself an inherently funny thing. He also speaks Hebrew, which is also not really funny, although contextually, both the shirtlessness and the Hebrew end up being funny. Part of what makes Holbrooke funny -- and what makes the Fosters funny too -- is that they don't know that they're funny. The Tripplehorns (James Franco and Mila Kunis), when Claire and Phil find them, don't know they're funny either. They're more than half baked, and exactly the sort of people one might expect to have unwittingly instigated the current crisis. 

Although really, it was the act of impersonating the Tripplehorns that got the Fosters in over their heads. Suffice it to say that one of the lessons learned in Date Night is that decent people who want to avoid trouble don't steal tables in trendy Manhattan restaurants, no matter how rude and imperious the maƮtre d' is. And the other lesson is that a little boredom isn't fatal to marital bliss, and when you consider the alternative, it might be downright conducive to it.

11 April2010