It's soul crushing to see great comedians on cruise control. Can we reconcile Steve Martin in The Jerk with Steve Martin in Cheaper By The Dozen? Or Richard Pryor's transition from Stir Crazy to Another You. Or Gene Wilder doing the same? How about the Eddie Murphy of Beverly Hills Cop becoming the Eddie Murphy of The Adventures of Pluto Nash?
So it seems with Tina Fey in Date Night. The best ever "Weekend Update" anchor on Saturday Night Live, Fey rose to scripting excellence with Mean Girls before arriving at the genius that is 30 Rock. Yet the disappointing Date Night finds Tina Fey on autopilot. She leaves the writing to Josh Klausner of Shrek the Third (and-only-Shrek the Third) fame and the directing to the sub-mediocre Shawn Levy (Cheaper By The Dozen again).
Steve Carell and Tina Fey are Phil and Claire Foster, a weary married couple who attempt marital spiciness by going out on "date nights." On one of these nights they swipe someone's dinner reservation and, thus mistakenly identified, find themselves running for their lives while playing detectives. But neither of those things are exciting because it's Tina Fey and Steve Carell! We know that they won't get their brains blown out. No efforts are made to develop characters and by movie's end we still know it's only Tina Fey and Steve Carell. And the ever-so-mild mystery they have to unravel wouldn't even race the blood of Encyclopedia Brown. No need anyway, Mark Wahlberg plays a sleepy deus-ex-machina who solves everything.
Date Night would be a perfect double feature with the overrated Pineapple Express. Neither movie is funny in a dangerous way, though the comedy is wrapped in action plots. Despite the violence, scenes are carefully staged, giving both a safe feel. Every joke rings calculated, even though both rely on heavy improvisation. The supporting casts are familiar Faces o' Comedy, as though you're being granted a window to some exclusive club where everyone is always cracking each other up. And both movies feature James Franco frittering away his James Dean-promise.
Yes, improvisation... Date Night seems powered by sycophantic giggling. In the final credits' telling outtakes, Tina Fey riffs about vaginas while the cast and crew ruin shots with wailing laughter. I think it was Francis Ford Coppola who once observed that when everybody on the movie set is battling, you're in good shape, but when everybody loves each other you're in serious trouble.
But Date Night is most guilty of sincere lameness when it resorts to the overused theme of, "Was our married life boring because we don't have as much sex as single people seem to have and isn't it wonderful we fell into mortal danger because it saved us from divorce?" This question has been asked so much so in modern cinema that it's perhaps time for a moratorium on movies made by strip-clubbing bachelors and/or movies made by people who are questioning their own marriage because they work on movie sets and long to sleep with hot young actresses.
Directed by Shawn Levy
Starring Tina Fey, Steve Carell,
and Mark Wahlberg. Rating: PG-13