“Date Night” – Rendezvous with a Cliché

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By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic

Shawn Levy’s “Date Night” reminds that there is a little good in every movie, just as there is in every person. Well, except for “Message in a Bottle” (1999) and Adolf Hitler, that is. Light and convivial, this is the type of film you see when you don’t know what to see. No need to give it your full attention. It’s not like you haven’t seen it all before.

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Starring as the ordinary New Jersey couple tossed into extraordinary circumstances when they fib about their identities to get a table in a tony N.Y. restaurant as part of a plan to rid the cobwebs from their marriage, Tina Fey and Steve Carell are just O.K. There’s no great chemistry here. But not much can be said about the drab script and direction, either.

Actually, the mere fact that Fey and Carell are able to avoid embarrassment is an achievement. We even kind of like the poor schnooks. Not that we cool cats can relate. For they are the anti-hip, the burdened middle class, center hall colonial and all. Once upon a time they kissed all the time and took the time. Now they hardly have the time.

Of course, that’s all about to end. Trot out the adage, “Be careful what you wish for.” Claire and Phil Foster will soon be praying to stay alive through the time of their lives. And gee, it started so innocently, so well intentioned. Dressing to the nines and hiring the babysitter, they cross the river to overpay in the name of fun and urban trendiness.

Naturally, the snooty maitre d’ at the pretentious bistro they seek to haunt immediately reminds them of their obvious suburban origins. Their sort just never gets a table here. But they can have a seat at the bar, spend big and hope against hope. And then comes an inspiration: “Paging the Triplehorns. Your table is ready.” But no answer. Yep, they do.
“Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive” is the maxim that now applies. The Triplehorns, it turns out, are not very nice people. And it just so happens that they possess something that some other not very nice people want. Of course as luck would have it, this is the night they’ve chosen to come get it.

Let the absurdities ensue, replete with a bevy of slapstick, gunplay, car chases and just about everything else that comes under the heading of formula flick. However, in all fairness, despite the odds so heavily stacked against them, Miss Fey and Mr. Carell’s clueless Fosters do exude a modicum of native intelligence warranting our cheers.

And while the on the run investigation into the humdrum routine married couples often find themselves in could hardly compare to the kind of psychological sagacity peddled on “Dr. Phil” et al, there are some sentimental forays into the syndrome. Less revelatory than commiserative, these are winking little sarcasms essentially ennobling the sacred rut.

Less notable are the baddies. While menacing enough, the two goons who chase the faux Triplehorns around the Big Apple lack villainous cachet. Ditto for their mobster boss, Joe Miletto, portrayed with typecast weariness by Ray Liotta. Mila Kunis and James Franco as the fringy, real Triplehorns do a funny little bit, but one would expect more from them.

And, more curious than beneficial is a subtext introducing Mark Wahlberg as the vaguely mysterious Holbrooke, a security guru who realtor Claire once helped with a housing hunt. Running scared, she leads the way to his pad. Maybe he’ll help. It’s the first Phil has heard of the perennially shirtless stud. But it’s more ho-hum than hmm.

Most of these shortcomings can be attributed to Josh Klausner’s hardly inspiring script and director Levy’s inability to lift it above mediocrity. While the pace avoids jagged impasse, the skit-like scenes never quite establish an integrated flow. And perky likeability of the principals considered, even farce suffers when there is no central soul.

There is irony here in that the tale of the usually cautious Fosters, unlike its protagonists, never goes out on a limb. Playing it safe to please the very mindset it satirizes, and in turn the box office, “Date Night” sells short its principal pair. Surely it would be a gamble, but letting Fey and Carell loose on the material might have made for a darker, zanier film.

Granted, there are moments when we fear for the bourgeois icons. But we’ll bet our thirty-year, 5.25% fixed that nothing too dastardly befalls them. So while the bored duo perfunctorily find a way to inject some excitement in their marriage, those expecting a surprise in their moviegoing will ultimately feel stood up by “Date Night.”

“Date Night,” rated PG-13, is a Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation release directed by Shawn Levy and stars Tina Fey, Steve Carell and Mark Wahlberg. Running time: 86 minutes


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