Thursday, April 8, 2010

'Date Night?' Wish I'd been stood up

Maybe Steve Carell and Tina Fey shouldn't date.

-- The maitre'd at Claw, a trendy Manhattan seafood restaurant, seems dismissive of anyone who appears not to be wearing eau du A-List. Want to venture a guess about our host's sexual orientation?

-- A mob boss chomps away at his dinner in the back of Manhattan bar. His ethnicity?

-- During a perilous car chase, drivers and passengers open their mouths and do what?

If you require them - and I doubt that you do - the answers to these questions are a) gay b) Italian-American and c) scream.

Granted, I've cast my net far from the center of Date Night, a marriage comedy starring Steve Carell and Tina Fey. But it's at the periphery of this second-rate effort where you may first begin to notice that the filmmakers seem a little too eager to sacrifice their smarts on an altar piled high with everything from cartoonish gangsters to corrupt cops.

Director Shawn Levy (Night at the Museum) and screenwriter Josh Klausner seem to be betting - or so it seemed to me - that watching two supposedly "normal" people react to one extreme situation after another is justification enough for the movie's slapdash enthusiasms. If you're looking for insight into why marriages often slip into the doldrums, you might as well turn to Dr. Phil. Date Night doesn't have much to say about the subject, other than to point out that those who hop off the suburban treadmill, do so at their peril.

Look, Carell and Fey are too capable not to wring some laughs out of even second-rate material. But the movie's overall approach -- following one extreme situation with another -- results in a comedy of contrivances. Nothing necessarily wrong with that, but in this case, it puts Carell and Fey into a tough spot: They must pit their comic instincts against an overpowering and not especially funny scenario in which anything that can go wrong does.

Like most comedies, Date Night would be lost without cliches. Carell's Phil works as an accountant. Fey's Claire sells real estate. They live in new Jersey with their two kids. Their lives consist of work, domestic chores, outings with the kids and the occasional book-club meeting. Even their weekly date nights have gone stale, carving yet another groove in the endless rut of their suburban lives.

One night Phil and Claire yield to something that seems to have become entirely foreign to them: impulse. The couple travels to a fancy Manhattan restaurant, the kind that has become so trendy most people make reservations six months in advance. With their romantic evening on the verge of collapse, Phil and Claire languish at the bar.

But wait.

An idea - not to mention the major plot twist - dawns. Phil and Claire commandeer the reservation of a couple that hasn't shown up. As those who've seen the trailer know, the couple Phil and Claire are impersonating has gotten crosswise with the mob, a situation that kicks our couple and the rest of the movie into a higher but far less savvy gear.

If you're old enough to remember The Out of Towners, a 1970 comedy starring Jack Lemmon and Sandy Dennis, you may want to think of Date Night as The Out of Towers with heavy artillery and an ear-splitting chase sequence. Phil and Claire face one potential catastrophe after another as they're dragged through the urban mud.

Sans shirt and looking buffed to the max, Mark Wahlberg turns up as a kind of private investigator who owns his own security company. The movie uses Wahlberg as a running, though increasingly tired, joke. Phil and Claire keep visiting the sleek bachelor pad where Wahlberg's character keeps his buxom girlfriend purring. He offers help in their night of desperation.

Date Night does an admirable job of disguising James Franco, who appears with Mila Kunis, as one member of the dopey duo who originally made the reservation at Claw. Ray Liotta plays a grim-faced mob boss, and Taraji P. Henson portrays a New York City detective who sides with our fleeing couple. Mark Ruffalo and Kristen Wiig are entirely wasted in early scenes that cast them as a couple fighting the monotony of marriage. They've decided to split.

Date Night isn't the first movie to try to stretch a one-joke premise into a full-length feature, but even at a crisp 88 minutes, it seems to run out of creative steam. I don't know what kind of prospects Date Night faces at the box office, but I'd say Hollywood owes Carell and Fey another - and much smarter - comedy. Us, too.

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