Somewhere between the hours of six and seven pm on Saturday evening my wife and I altered our original plan, which was to watch Zero Dark Thirty, and instead decided to plump for the altogether lighter and less demanding Date Night. I’m not really sure what the thought process was behind this decision, other than the fact that presumably neither of us were in the mood to sit through anything too taxing, but ultra-lightweight fayre like Date Night? Talk about the other end of the spectrum; perhaps we needed a dose of the hysterics. A happy medium would have been perfect, but then I’m not entirely sure what film that is, exactly. Maybe in the inevitable Date Night 2 (because everything gets made into a trilogy these days, it’s the rules) Steve Carrell and Tina Fey’s characters could be mistaken for senior CIA spooks that are subsequently invited along to the keg party pay per view Fox screening of Osama’s demise at the White House. With hilarious consequences both at home and in Afghanistan.
Date Night is a fairly uninspired comedy. Carrell and Fey play Phil and Claire Foster, a married with children couple living in the New Jersey suburbs. They’ve been together for a number of years, and while there aren’t exactly major problems between the two, the comfort of a daily routine has sucked some of the passion out of their relationship. Still, once a week they admirably persevere with a ‘date night’, usually a trip to the cinema or a local nondescript but homely restaurant. Spurred on by the fact that long-time friends Brad and Haley (Mark Ruffalo and Kirsten Wiig in pointless two-minute cameos that reek of pally ‘sure-I’ll-be-in-your-film’ smugness) are splitting up, Phil decides to take his wife to an exclusive and fashionable Manhattan seafood restaurant called Claw on their next date. And talking of cameos … Ray Liotta. Ray Liotta. He was in GoodFellas, for goodness sake. GoodFellas. What happened, Ray? Ray? What happened? Ray? Ray? Are you there? Ray? Ray? Ray? Ray? Ray? Hello? Ray? Ray? Ray? Ray? Ray? Ray? Ray? Ray? Ray? Ray? Ray? Ray? Ray? Ray? Ray? Ray? Ray? Ray? Ray? Ray? Ray? Ray? Ray? Ray? Ray? Ray? Ray? Ray? Ray? Ray? Ray? Ray? Ray? Ray? Ray? Ray? What the hell happened? Of course it’s ultimately none of my business, but wouldn’t it be better to give ever-so-minor roles to a couple of out of work actors who actually need the money?
At the restaurant they are unable to secure a table, and so resort to impersonating ‘The Tripplehorns’ – a no-show couple that do actually hold a table reservation. The trouble is, the real Tripplehorns are small-time crooks that are caught up in a blackmail scam involving the DA Frank Crenshaw (William Fichtner) and local mob boss Joe Miletto (Ray Liotta*). You can see where this is going, right? With hilarious consequences.
Phil and Claire are approached by a couple of heavies named Armstrong and Collins during their meal (played by Jimmi Simpson and Common, who gallantly do battle with each other throughout proceedings for the coveted title of least charismatic and most wooden actor in the film), and are taken outside and threatened by the two henchmen. What follows is a fairly traditional farce, where Phil and Claire are chased around town by the gun-toting Collins and Armstrong (who are actually NYPD detectives) while they seek out the flash drive full of incriminating photos of the DA that ought to extricate them from this mess. With hilarious consequences.
The cameos keep on coming. Will.i.am (I’m sticking with the capital ‘W’, damnit) furthers his impressive quest to expand his considerable profile by appearing as himself (a diner at Claw, mercifully without any lines). I guess it’s just me, and perhaps I’m a bitter, miserable cynic, but if I was an ‘artist’ and someone asked me to briefly play myself in some comedy or other, I might just contemplate for a few seconds whether or not it would make me look like a desperate, publicity-hungry fuckhead under the influence of an uncontrollable egotistical rampage that clearly won’t ever end until either (a) Armageddon or (b) my face ends up on every TV talent show, computer monitor, Apple billboard and cereal packet worldwide, so that the average person sees me and my jaunty fucking haircut hawking my fucking piss-weak shit at them at least 40 fucking times per day, every day. Whichever comes first, presuming that (a) is in fact something different to (b).
I dunno. Maybe it is just me. To be fair to him at least he’s game for being the butt of a couple of lame, lazy jokes at the expense of his name, something which I have paid homage to in the above paragraph. The sad thing is, of all the dismal, pointless cameos that pop up in Date Night, (as if the director and producers thought they could somehow mask the film’s lack of quality by throwing in enough recognisable and beautifully-arranged faces to distract the chewing masses from the twin black holes of plot and dialogue), at least Will.i.am’s narcissistic turn is quickly consigned to the dustbin of vapid, pointless history. As well as the aforementioned Wiig and Ruffalo image-belches, Mark Wahlberg is briefly ever-so-slightly-amusing as muscular surveillance expert and alpha male Holbrooke Grant, but tellingly the script hits you with a running joke about his shirtless torso so many times that eventually you weep “Yes! I get it! Can you please just bring Will.i.am back now, so I can look at his haircut again? Or have you simply got nothing else?” James Franco and Mila Kunis appear as the real Tripplehorns, but their scene with Carrell and Fey is celeb-driven drivel, weakly relying on the word ‘vagina’ for laughs. Still, at least they got to be included in the end credits as a result, where Carrell repeatedly cracks up in front of Franco like the Ghost of Burt Reynolds Past; I’m glad at least one person got a few chuckles out of the experience. Yup, the cameos here feel like hollow distractions. Nothing more, nothing less. Ray?
In fairness, Date Night has a couple of good moments, but I stress the word ‘couple’. There’s a half-decent sight gag early on as Phil and Claire make an escape across Central Park’s lake, and an amusing scene where the two return to Claw dressed like a couple of fashionistas and subject the maître d’ to a barrage of withering insults and incessant sarcasm. A strip joint that appears later on is called, wittily, ‘The Peppermint Hippo’. But these moments are little blips, each one a stark reminder that the comedy has been flatlining for the previous 15 or 20 minutes. It seems too reliant on uninventive and repetitive chase and escape scenes that have been seen a thousand times before. Carrell and Fey do their best, and while Josh Klausner’s screenplay will make you smirk from time to time, it simply doesn’t deliver enough killer lines (and you will probably wonder just how much was ad-libbed, anyway). Klausner worked for years with the Farrelly Brothers as second unit director; some of their most base gross-out moments would have been welcome here, as it would at least shake Date Night out of its torpor.
Director Shawn Levy is, amazingly, one of the most profitable producer-directors working in Hollywood today. In addition to helming Cheaper By The Dozen, the Night At The Museum series (again, soon to be enshrined in trilogy form, which means that the mark of true quality nowadays is whether concept has enough legs for an ennealogy) and the Pink Panther re-boot, he has also produced tepid and forgettable claptrap like What Happens In Vegas and The Watch. Some of these banal, formulaic films are making certain lucky shareholders a hell of a lot of money, so we can expect to see many more on our screens in the coming years.
Unfortunately, Date Night is a tired, hackneyed comedy with only one or two standout moments and one or two lines that make the most of the considerable comic talents of the two principal stars. It relies far too heavily on the likeability of Carrell and Fey, which remains intact throughout, thanks in part to some occasionally amusing goofing and the fact that – despite successful TV stints on The Office, The Daily Show, Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock – they are still a relatively novel couple of faces on the big screen. While the goodwill built up by their TV and film careers to date isn’t damaged, the film is a clear reminder that unless the script is up to scratch, even the better comic actors are unable to turn a turkey into a golden goose. Senses of humour, of course, differ from person to person; there are many people who will find their sides-a-splitting as Carrell and Fey career around New York City, but I’m not one of them. But worst of all is all this pally cameo nonsense. Sometimes, if asked to appear, some people would be better of saying ‘thanks but no thanks’.
Directed by: Shawn Levy
Written by: Josh Klausner
Starring: Tina Fey, Steve Carrell, Common, Jimmi Simpson
Running Time: 87 Minutes