Date Night: Shawn Levy’s Marriage Comedy

By Patrick Z. McGavin
An occasionally funny though also strained and pummeling riff on the genre of marriage comedy, Shawn Levy’s “Date Night,” is a dark night into day story about a suburban couple whose desire to enliven a romantically atrophied relationship brings about a wholly different range of danger and entrapment.
The script, by Josh Hausner, appears heavily indebted to various Hitchcock movies, from “Mr. And Mrs. Smith” to “North by Northwest,” about a quarreling couple whose rigid, by the book marriage is dangerously altered by a case of mistaken identity. It’s also a contemporized take on Neil Simon’s script of Arthur Hiller’s “The Out-of-Towners,” with the small-town condescension replaced by a solemn snideness.
The real model, of course, is Martin Scorsese’s great, underrated “After Hours.” Levy, the director, best known for his work on the “Cheaper by the Dozen” and “Night of the Museum” franchises, began his career in television, which may explain why he lacks the fineese and technical skill to work in different tones and flamboyant moods. It is all of one piece, and that tends to be the sledgehammer.
Phil Foster (Steve Carell), a tax attorney, and his wife Claire (Tina Fey), a real estate broker, are a self-described “boring suburban New Jersey couple,” whose carefully scripted lives are built on safety and ritual. Naturally their lives are completely predicated on the raising of their adorably cute and rambuctious young son and daughter.
Needless to say, the privileged romantic and erotic aura of their relationship has been wholly extinquished. Their lone escape comes in the form of their own ritual, a weekly Friday night “date night,” typically involving seafood. Right from the start, Hausner’s script establishes a superior, smug tone, like the defensive way the couple surreptitiously watch over and make up elaborate stories or comments on the people around them at dinner. It leaves a bitter tone.
Alarmed by the disintegration of the marriage of some close friends (Mark Ruffalo and Kristen Wiig, the first of several throway parts), Phil takes a leap and decides to mix up the usual by taking his wife to a hipster restaurant in Greenwich Village. Put off by the haughty tone of their maitre d’, the two take their subversive revenge by assuming the identities of an another couple in order to secure a coveted table.
Complications, as they say, quickly ensue. The couple whose identities they appropriated were themselves a made up pair who were involved in a shakedown plot involving some local heavyhitters. Before they realize the extent of the trouble engulfing them, the two are whisked to a dark alley and are suddenly being held at gunpoint by two gangsters (Common and Jimmi Simpson) demanding they hand over a computer storage device containing some incriminating evidence.
The two find a fairly ingenious way to extricate themselves from their predictament, but it is the start of their late night odyssey through a world normally way off their point of view. The script works well enough moving from one scenario to the next, but the movie is at its best when it slows down and finds time for the large and eclectic cast to do their thing.
The couple’s ally and protector, in the movie’s one saving grace, arrives in the form of Holbrooke (Mark Wahlberg, very funny, relaxed and convincing play off his own screen persona). He’s a security expert whose covert skills enable the couple to track the rival couple (James Franco and Mila Kunis) that got them into the original trouble. During these stretches, “Date Night” works well; the exchanges between the various players, each of them working off contrasting ideas of envy, guilt and jealousy, gives a nutty bounce and beguiling center to the loosely plotted antics.
In the final 40 minutes, the movie devolves into a series of undistinguished and almost desperately unfunny sketch set pieces and staredowns that are neither fresh nor original. In one case, the most sustained of the movie’s comic set pieces, the filmmakers have some fun with a car chase sequence that itself is founded on a blunt sexual metaphor of two cars locked together. Levy goes over the top with his own visual exaggeration, set in mock close up, involving the driver of the second car, a black cab driver whose bugged out eyes were badly out of place 40 years ago, to say nothing of a movie made and released in 2010.
“Date Night” lunges from one big moment to the next and it never takes sufficient time to work with the actors. A large secondary cast, like “Gossip Girl” vixen Leighten Meester and Academy award nominee Taraji P. Henson, is badly underutilized and insufficiently woven into the larger storyline. The movie runs just 88 minutes, and everything moves at a rushed, clip pace and slingshot rhythm.
That puts the emphasis on the two leads, and they prove a mixed blessing. Fey continues to delight, her mock sultry suggestiveness is very funny in a sequence set in an underground sex club. Her intelligence registers despite the pretty much fatal lack of snap and vigor in the writing. Carell is fairly problematic, in part because he’s resorting to the familiar nebbish suburban everyman part that have come to typify most of his film work. He’s better in television. He lacks the solidity and presence of a finely tuned comic film actor.
The two successfully sketch the entirety of a marriage, from the smallc compromises to the heady disappointment to the binding and lyrical sense of joy and wonder. But, in the end, “Date Night” never strays too far from the conservative, wish fulfillment of most Hollywood movies about marriage. It surveys a world where everybody returns to their usual point of emphasis, their souls untouched and their lives still grindingly the same.