Date Night is one of those movies you really try to get behind and really wish you liked more, but ultimately have to admit it's just... not that great. The reasons for wanting to fly its flag are obvious: Steve Carell and Tina Fey are two of the funniest people on TV, and it's natural to want to see them succeed on the big screen.
The reason the movie falls flat is equally obvious: Shawn Levy's direction is as uninspired as they come. Date Night is only ever moderately
exciting. It bears the mark of a cinematic no-mark; a bland director whose cast members deserve way better than him.
The set-up is pleasantly simple and requires little to get jump-started. Carell and Fey are Phil and Claire Foster, a suburban married couple with kids who are searching for a little spark in their love lives. Upon getting turned away at a fancy city restaurant, they steal another couple's reservation and dine like royalty, until they're led out into the alleyway by two goons and threatened at gun-point in a clear case of mistaken identity. Begin caper.
Carell and Fey, are hugely likeable acts and this works very much in Date Night's favour. As a couple, they work well, and the movie's funniest moments comes from their more intimate moments - like bitching about fellow patrons over a meal - than they do from the increasingly ludicrous situations. Carell has honed the put-upon everyman routine to perfection and gets most of his laughs from reaction shots, while Fey provides much of the movie's witticisms with (I suspect) non-scripted asides. "Just so you know," she pants as they climb up a fire escape, "Everything you're doing I'm doing in heels."
The plot is perfunctory but daft enough to splutter from set-piece to set-piece, with cameos of varying success propping up the flagging narrative every time things threaten to get stale. In fact, there's hardly a character in the movie who isn't played by a named actor - even their babysitter is a Gossip Girl (whatever that is). Kristen Wiig and Mark Ruffalo make a nice but pointless early appearance, James Franco and Mila Kunis raise the spirits with an interesting diversion and Mark Wahlberg... well, he walks around with his shirt off a whole bunch. As for Ray Liotta? I don't think he even qualifies as a cameo any more. This probably paid his rent.
It's pretty unambitious stuff, really: a whole mess and nonsense about mistaken identity, corrupt cops and a missing flash drive (or "computer sticky thing" as Fey puts it). It jets from point A to point B with the minimum fuss, and the two leads are unflappable in the face of intense silliness. There are a couple of good sight gags (a great 'getaway' vehicle shot in particular) and what's more, the underlying message of love isn't half as mawkish as expected. That's not to say there aren't a few fingers-down-throat moments, though.
In fact, kudos to the writers for penning a script starring two middle-aged leads in a mature relationship, even if proceedings do dissolve into goofy pole dancing by the end. Enforcing its 'Grown-Ups Gone Wild' feel is a 15 certificate, but apart from a particularly well-delivered F-bomb, there's nothing especially 'adult' about Date Night at all. Still, it's nice to see a movie that isn't about fresh-faced pukes with the world at their feet. Because who gives a shit about those assholes?
In a weird sort of way, Date Night feels like it should have been made in the eighties, where its brand of quaint caper comedy was more warmly received. That's neither an insult or a compliment, it just feels like a comedy caught out of time - you don't get many comedies with outtakes over the end credits any more. Sadly, Date Night proves why: if your out-takes are better than your in-takes, then something's gone wrong somewhere.
Let's point the finger at Shawn Levy. Like Brett Ratner and Joe Johnston, Shawn Levy is one of those no-name directors who's somehow managed to finagle himself into a highly successful career with massive budgets at his disposal - all without ever really having make a decent film. The Pink Panther. Cheaper By The Dozen. Night At The Museum. Bland family fare through and through. His is direction by numbers.
Date Night is no different. It's fun to watch, but has to go down as an unforgivable waste of two talented leads who can't seem to catch a break on the big-screen. An inoffensive bit of fluff, it's the perfect date movie - one that you'll enjoy but forget almost immediately after. You'll try to love it, really you will, but it's just... not that great. Shame.