Thursday, September 9, 2010

Date Night (21 League/20th Century-Fox, 2010)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Our “feature” last night was Date Night, a recent (released April 9, 2010) comedy starring Steve Carell and Tina Fey as Phil and Claire Foster, a long-time married couple with two kids who like to wake their parents up by jumping on them in bed — which is about the most exciting thing that happens to the adult Fosters all day. (It made both Charles and I feel old to see the movie open with the Ramones’ song “Blitzkrieg Bop” used as the background for a deliberately boring scene showing the utter staidness and predictability of the Fosters’ lifestyle.) One night a week they hire a babysitter so they can go on a “date night,” just the two of them presumably reproducing the excitement they felt when they were first courting each other before they settled into dull domesticity — only even that’s become a boring routine of their own, always going to the same local restaurant (they live in New Jersey and even their town’s distance from New York becomes a joke in the film — Phil’s a tax preparer and Claire’s a realtor — or is that a Realtor? — and when he says they live only 20 minutes from New York City she corrects him and says it’s an hour; he says, “When you show people houses you say it’s only 20 minutes from the city,” and she says, “I’m lying. It’s really an hour”) and ordering the same thing (salmon and potato skins — the first time we see them do this he complains that the dish is mushier than usual).

For the second “date night” we see in the film, and the one that the story centers around, he insists on going to New York City and eating at the trendy (and ultra-high-priced; when she sees the menu she says, “If I’m going to order crab at these prices it better sing, dance and introduce the Little Mermaid”) seafood restaurant Claw — only the snippy stereotype-queen maitre d’ refuses to give them a table without a reservation. So when a couple called the Tripplehorns (an in-joke reference to the actress Jeanne Tripplehorn, whom I remember only as Kevin Costner’s sort-of love interest in Waterworld) get called for their reservations but don’t show, Phil hits on the idea of taking their reservation and getting seated. All goes well — they have a fabulous meal even though they probably had to take out a second mortgage on their home to pay for it — until two tall, rather hunky mystery men accost them and escort them outside. At first they think they’re just being thrown out of the restaurant for poaching someone else’s reservation, but soon it develops that these are Collins (Common) and Armstrong (Jimmi Simpson), strong-arm men for gangster Joe Miletto (Ray Liotta, who acted with the real Jeanne Tripplehorn in the 2009 film Crazy on the Outside). They’re after a flash drive the Tripplehorns stole from Liotta that has some deep, dark secret information on it, and they’re armed and ready to kill the Fosters if they don’t come across with the drive.

From then on — 26 minutes into a 93-minute film (not counting the extended credits sequence on the DVD, which features supposed “bloopers” from the original shoot — though I suspect some, if not all of them, were deliberately staged malapropisms made to look like spontaneous mistakes) — it’s basically a chase in which the innocent young couple realize pretty quickly that they can’t go to the police with their predicament because when they try — and blurt out some of their story to a female officer, Detective Arroyo (Taraji P. Henson) — they see Collins and Armstrong in the police station and realize the thugs that are after them are police officers. The film is perched uneasily between thriller and comedy, and some of the attempts at humor fall flat because it’s hard to laugh at two people who are in mortal danger from two implacable assassins who are also corrupt cops, but there are some brilliant gags — as when, in an attempt to flee the thugs in Central Park, the Fosters get into a motorboat and try to get away by water, only to find that the thing can’t go more than five miles an hour, so they end up fleeing by land and holding the boat over them as a shield à la the oil drums at the end of The Killer Shrews.

There’s also a great sequence in which the Fosters, having hooked up with a mercenary secret agent, Holbrooke Grant (Mark Wahlberg, shown shirtless through all his appearances), with state-of-the-art computer equipment and killer pecs, end up stealing his car and getting it inextricably fastened to a Yellow Cab driven by an African-American who seems to be channeling Eddie Murphy. The gag of two cars hooked together and unable to separate is at least as old as the Hal Roach Studios (the film I thought of was Kelly the Second, where the gag brought the film’s comic leads, Patsy Kelly and Guinn “Big Boy” Williams, together) and probably even older than that, but it’s the most screamingly funny gag in the film! Eventually the Fosters have to pose as an androgynous strip team to get into a private club called the Peppermint Hippo (a reference to South Park and apparently also a take-off on a real establishment, the Spearmint Rhino) because what’s so ridiculously important on that flash drive has turned out to be the supposedly squeaky-clean district attorney, Frank Crenshaw (William Fichtner), who seems either writer Josh Klausner’s take-off on Elliott Spitzer or a fugitive from a Carl Hiaasen novel, since he’s about as polymorphously perverse as Klausner and director Shawn Levy could make him and still keep their PG-13 rating; and as for the Tripplehorns, they turn out to be a low-life criminal couple named Taste (a surprisingly plump and seedy-looking James Franco) and Whippit (Mila Kunis — her alias comes not from the breed of dog but from the practice of sniffing the gases from a nearly used-up aerosol can of whipped cream), and it’s not their real name either: Taste just happened to use “Tripplehorn” as an alias because he had a mad crush on Jeanne Tripplehorn.

Eventually all ends more or less well — the good cops bust the bad cops and the corrupt D.A. and the Fosters go back to their suburban existence, albeit the last scene is a long-shot of them apparently having sex with each other in broad daylight on their front lawn, indicating that their horrible “date night” has shaken loose some of their inhibitions and rekindled their relationship. Date Night is a film that could have been screamingly funny instead of moderately amusing, and it’s derivative as all get-out (I noticed similarities to The Out-of-Towners and Charles ditto to Who’s That Girl?, which itself was reworked from Bringing Up Baby and What’s Up, Doc?), but it’s a nice little movie that (aside from a couple of scenes of Steve Carell retching) mostly avoids the offensive attempts to find humor in involuntary bodily functions that mar so many so-called “comedies” made today. Still, it’s amazing that a major-studio (20th Century-Fox) production with big stars noted for humor can’t even approach the laughs-per-minute quotient of a low-budget indie like Kabluey!