In Which We Ditch Our Dates For “Date Night”

Note: Here be spoilers! But by now if you wanted to see this movie, you probably did already.

Ellen: I had high hopes for this thing, because Tina Fey and Steve Carell are two of my favorite funny people. And as the reviews leaked out I frantically calibrated those to medium hopes, remembering other movies featuring Fey and Carell that didn’t necessarily play to their strengths. But even after doing that, I was pretty disappointed in this movie. It seemed to be having an identity crisis about whether it wanted to be an action movie with a little funny business, or a comedy with some improbable action. But mostly, I didn’t laugh enough, and when a movie is sold as a comedy that’s a major malfunction. How about you — did you laugh enough?

Zoe: I did! I mean, I went in with wildly low expectations, having never seen a trailer or read a review. In fact, I didn’t even know the movie was about a married couple. I would call myself “entertained above my expectations” which ultimately translates to “this movie was delightfully mediocre”. Though I’m surprised to hear you didn’t think you laughed enough, since that Kindle bit cracked you up for easily five minutes. But I totally agree about the action/comedy axis being wildly missed. Action comedy is a hard genre to nail (just ask Bruce Willis about Hudson Hawk…) and ultimately this film did not nail it. Maybe because they neglected to have even a single action movie actor in it? I mean, come on! The Rock could have been in here somewhere.

Ellen: I am a sucker for a good Kindle joke, and this one was a great one. But my point is, that was one of the only jokes that I remembered enough to tell people “Okay, it was really funny when…” That’s one of my barometers for a great comedy — I think I remember more of the gags from “Hot Tub Time Machine,” which I had seen the week before “Date Night.” I mean, Kristen Wiig is in this movie, and she’s not funny! How do you do that?

Mark Wahlberg has been in some action movies, but his function in “Date Night” is to sit there and look pretty. Not only am I okay with that, I appreciated the neat inversion of the classic “husband drooling after hot chick” scenario — Steve Carell becomes increasingly uncomfortable that his wife is attracted to and making conversation with a buff shirtless guy, yet they need him in order to protect themselves.

I don’t think the movie needed more action actors, although it might have helped. I’m going to toss in a word often used by one of my favorite movie podcasts, Filmspotting, to denote whether a movie works or not: Their ex-host especially emphasized how a movie has to have “stakes” in order to work. I think we’re supposed to believe that the married couple in “Date Night” are in real danger, but I never fully bought it even when they were being chased in super grainy footage around Central Park — and I definitely didn’t buy it when we knew that they were up against Awful Plastic Surgery Ray Liotta and Goofy William Fichtner. But by that point, even if those roles had been taken by Robert DeNiro and Ed Harris, I still wouldn’t have felt like everything wasn’t going to end up okay. What “Date Night” needed to do for me was either to lower the stakes or raise them substantially.

Also, I have heard tell of the amazing crapitude of “Hudson Hawk.” Worth seeing, in your opinion?

Zoe: This is true! I did not even realize that was Kristen Wiig, that is how unfunny they made her. And I will agree that the Kindle joke and the terribly unfunny stripper dancing scene were the only two I really remember, which is a depressing barometer.

You know what it comes down to, ultimately? I really enjoyed the movie when it was just about Tina Fey and Steve Carell being a boring, but sort of adorable, married couple. When they goofed around at the restaurant, it was charming and relatable. When they were boringly going through the motions it was nice. Moreover, I was pleased that there was a movie that didn’t try to make clearly middle-aged actors on the prowl for dates and not a shrill married couple. So why couldn’t they have just created a reasonable, minor problem (preferably one that still involved Mark Wahlberg and James Franco) without trying to get us to believe that Common (Common!) is a total scary badass.

I mean, I love Jimmi Simpson with all my heart, but he’s not a threatening bad guy and they didn’t even let him be that funny. It was frustrating the way they kept wasting their comedy cast in favor of bad action.

There were some OK bits in this movie, but they were mostly about (to me) things that I like when movies address: I like when Tina/Steve (we’re on a first name basis, you know, and God knows I don’t remember their character names) talked about their marriage issues. I mean, the actual scene was bo-ring, but I liked that it wasn’t some HUGE CONFLICT RAH and that she wanted alone time and he wanted to feel like a grown up. I liked your previously mentioned Wahlberg reversal. I liked that mercifully had no lines. But all of that stuff is an intellectual like, whereas my actual opinion of this as a movie is: it’s worth a rental, probably! Watch it on your next flight!

Hudson Hawk is one of my oldest friends favorite movies. I watched it when I was sort of sleepy. It’s not as bad as it’s reputation deserves. It’s sort of charming at moments, to me. I would put it in the Southland Tales category of movies.

Ellen: I would probably also put this movie in the “watch on a plane” category, but that may say more about the distress of being on a plane than the quality. I mean, I even watched “Bride Wars” on a plane. (I couldn’t sleep. Cut me some slack.)

I completely agree with your point about Fey/Carell being watchable as a married couple. In fact, I would go several steps further and say if they made several co-starring movies together a la modern Hepburn and Tracy, I would gladly pay money to see all of them in theaters.  (NBC, I bet you would like this too?)

I thought Fey/Carell were very relatable; their problems in the relationship seemed to be pretty normal and they actually talked about them in a way that seemed like a very toned-down sitcom. If “The King Of Queens” covered the same territory, it would be all about her withholding sex from him and him being too lazy. Instead, it was “Why don’t you let me help you?” I thought that was a reasonable conflict, and having girded myself for Fey playing a Shrewish Mom type, I was pleasantly surprised.

So it’s not that I regret seeing it. It’s just that the material, in my opinion, wasn’t up to their usual. For one thing, the pacing of “Date Night” is unbearable — that last half-hour felt like an hour, when that should have been the most exciting part of the movie. When you’re looking fondly back at James Franco’s “Heat” joke in the middle of a car chase, the car chase is not riveting enough. It takes forever to get started, then it was fun for a while, then it started slipping.

I could have used more Franco, actually. His and Mila Kunis’ troubled-lovers-on-the-run bit was, now that I look back on it, pretty damn funny. More funny than watching Tina Fey abandon her inhibitions for 10 minutes.

Zoe: I once watched High School Musical 3 on a plane. But, in fairness, I might have eventually seen that movie anyways.

I am so with you on the Fey/Carell movie dream team. They were incredibly watchable, but I think, as we type it out, the inherent problem in the movie is that: they are really cute together, it would be hard to make a movie where they were not cute together and, in fact, they were shrill and horrible. Plus I feel like that both (OK, at least Fey) have a somewhat vested interest in deconstructing/changing the way marriage/women/the intersection of those two things is portrayed. Which ties back into the wonderful way they had a conflict but, man, that would be a dull film.

I guess what I am saying is, I am starting to see why this wacky, terrible action plot was foisted on this film. Because “adorable married couple deals reasonably with expected problems” just doesn’t have much bite to it.

The James Franco/Mila Kunis couple was so good that I would have rather watched a movie where they move in next door to the Fey’s (seriously, what were their characters’ names!?) and then wacky neighborly hijinks ensue. Which means I guess I would have rather watched a remake of Deck the Halls with this cast than deal with the stripper dance scene.

Which, since we’re on it, let’s discuss! Namely, I think it’s really indicative of a (in my view, valid) critique of Tina Fey. Namely that her brand of feminism is sort of the brand of feminism that dislikes some sorts of women. Namely, women we could call “Bombshell McGee” or who do something crazy like strip! But more importantly, the bit where Steve liked her boobs was endearing enough that I was willing to forgive the first fifteen seconds of some of the least funny “comedy” dancing I have ever seen. But not the next four minutes.

Ellen: I have read about this critique of Tina Fey (Tiger Beatdown’s “13 Ways of Looking at Liz Lemon” is required reading), but I think it’s important to separate criticism of Fey from her character on “30 Rock.” Even though Tina Fey stars in and produces the show, she’d be the first to say that Liz Lemon is not her in several respects. (For instance, I don’t think her rocky relationships with the other women in the office are necessarily meant to put down other women, but rather to refute the TV stereotype that women who work together are automatic BFFs. Buuut I digress.)

Anyway. For those of you who haven’t seen “Date Night,” Tina and Steve (you’re right, Zoe, their characters’ names have been completely wiped from my memory if they were ever there) have to infiltrate the Mafia-owned strip club where the squeaky-clean D.A. is known to party with strippers. Now that I write that out, is that an Eliot Spitzer reference, or do I just see Spitzer everywhere? In any case, the only way they can get to him in VIP is by catching his eye and dancing for him in the private room. This could be funny; instead, it’s endless. Tina Fey’s hotness is revealed and remarked upon, and the fact that Carell is pretty much uselessly distracted is a nice touch. Because she is! But the dancing isn’t funny, and the plot is advanced within 30 seconds because we have all seen this scene before, and Fichtner has to carry it in split-second reaction shots. At some point, the joke shifts into embarrassed-for-your-parents territory; I get the feeling that director Shawn Levy intended this scene as a centerpiece, but it is a disaster. Ironically, Levy is responsible for one of the best dance sequences of all time in the humorless mess that is the Steve Martin-Beyoncé “Pink Panther” — did he lose all his mojo?

You know who could have done this movie better? Team Apatow. I didn’t like “Funny People” but if this movie had taken after “Pineapple Express” a little more, I would have been much happier. And it’s definitely in line with the Apatow supposedly-retrogressive agenda — the married couple stays together throughout the adventure, and she even tells him she had never thought of leaving him.

Zoe: Thank you linking the critique when I forgot to! And yes, I think it’s important to separate the character from the writer, however based off her recent SNL stint (where “Bombshell McGee” comes from) and the character she was playing was…herself, it’s harder to say where the distinction is. I think it’s safe to say that Tina Fey’s flaws RE: some ladies are just part of feminism’s flaws, and that doesn’t make her a bad person or anything. It just makes for really, really, unfunny stripper dancing scenes.

(By the way, I looked up the names: Phil and Claire. Are Phil and Claire the new “pleasant, but generic” names for middle class white families? Is there some cultural thing I’m not getting here because I am not an aging Gen Xer?)

I agree that this seems up Team Apatow’s alley, except…too much ladyness! The woman isn’t a buzzkill, they’re both buzzkills (or equal levels of funny). Plus no one smokes pot. I agree that they probably would have ditched the not as good action stuff, but I feel like we would have had to have Jonah Hill has the maitre’d/wacky neighbor/instead of James Franco.

You know, thinking about it, what killed the movie for me more than anything is at the end when the Lady Cop is like “boy, you’ve had a long night, need a ride anywhere?” Because that is what cops do when people have been involved in 1) several crimes and as 2) witnesses to several more crimes. They totally let them go home without talking to anyone at all. Also, hooray warrantless wiretaps? I guess that is more accurate to how cops operate. I mean, I know this was an “action comedy” and expecting realism is, if this dialogue has shown anything, a ludicrous goal. But still. STILL. Make my disbelief less mid air, please.

That said, I did like that the end was just them making out. Whooo smooching!

Ellen: YES! It was a good ending. I don’t know that Carell and Fey had crazy chemistry so much as that they were believable as a couple who has been together a long time and is sticking it out for the long haul. And the extended take on the lawn was very funny.

I think James Franco may have still been able to squeeze into my imaginary Apatow “Date Night.” It could even have been his character from “Pineapple Express” in the apartment for a little Apatovian world-building. (Oh yeah, I went there.) He might not have cast Tina Fey, though, and putting a Katherine Heigl in there would be neither funny nor believable. I’m not saying there is a scarcity of funny ladies in Hollywood but I’m struggling with who would play the Fey role if not for Fey. My first thought is Amy Poehler, which only proves I’m not looking far enough outside the box.

I think the only thing that would have made the stripper sequence worse would be that Tina Fey was actually an excellent pole dancer and had been hiding that fact from her husband all these years. Look, you can have your Madonna/whore complex in one lady! (Although I did like that to goad her into the VIP area, Steve Carell reminds her that she is the mother of his children. Thought it was cute. I’m sure all the married people reading this have passed out by now at my naïveté.)

Finally, I’m tickled that you were focused enough on the plot by the end to be bothered by the Lady Cop. Isn’t that how every action comedy movie ends, with some slim justification for the heroes to go home and return to their normal lives? I don’t see many; so what was the last great action movie you saw? (Or action comedy, if you like.) I remember really enjoying “Tropic Thunder,” although that was much more comedy than action.

Zoe: I mean, I know that is how action movies are. I do! Because I mostly only watch action movies. But I guess that 1) it always annoys me and 2) in action movies I have explosions and shit to distract me and convince me this is Totally Normal and here I had nothing.

Also, because I don’t think we have mentioned it yet, the dance seen that we are going on and on about being unfunny? That was basically the funniest thing that the rest of the audience had ever seen ever. They laughed the entire way through. It was the highlight of the film for the rest of the theater. Meanwhile Ellen and I looked at each other and made “guh?” faces.

Anyways, to veer in a completely different direction: part of the reason we saw this movie for Lady Bits was because we wanted to discuss a Rom Com. And while Sex and the City 2 has clearly become the front runner for actually doing that, I’m going to posit something here. Date Night is not a romantic comedy, but it’s also girly enough. As in, it might actually, despite all the flaws noted above, be a good movie to see for an actual date.

By which I mean, of course, an actual date in Stereotype Land where women hate action movies and men hate kissing and never the twain shall meet. In that land…well, this movie doesn’t actually satisfy too much of either group. But it bridges the gap by being a goofy spring comedy. In the sense of: a movie that two people, with slightly differing taste, might see together romantically, this film works pretty well. Neither a chick flick, per se, nor a guy flick, per se, it sort of manages to be both? Because comedy! And yea, flawed, but that’s still a pretty good feat to pull off.

Ellen: I definitely have plans to drag you to “Sex and the City 2″ now, after discovering that you had not seen the first one and had really no desire to see the sequel. (Dear Robert, Scott and Paul, please do not kill yourselves. We’ll make it funny.)

But I don’t think this would be a good date movie. To clarify, Gentle Readers, Zoe and I saw this movie together, and celebrate the fact that when women go to the movies we can just say “we went to the movies” instead of “we’re having a bromance” or “we’re on a man-date.” We got nothing to fear! Except heteronormativity!

“Date Night” may look and sound from the title like a movie that will be good for our non-specific Man and Woman on Date to see together, and it’s probably a better option than a lot of movies out there. I am no expert at picking the targets of such outings (one word: Seabiscuit) but I think you could do better in Stereotype Land. Maybe Iron Man 2? Because I, woman, actually looked forward to that in a minor way.

The premise of Date Night is built around a couple whose relationship has slumped into mundanity to the extent that not only do they eat at the same place every time they go out, they order the same foods. I did not wish to know that your taste buds actually can be KILLED DEAD by monogamy! Even if this is true, it’s not something to go home and cuddle with.

Certainly, Fey and Carell share some tender moments, but those come after nearly an hour of “Oh ha ha, we are the most boring married couple ever, we never get out.” On a first date, that’s a cue to think “Do I ever want to be in a relationship, ever? Because there might be boring stuff happening in it.” On the other hand, maybe a couple who had been together for a while might appreciate the nod to realistic depiction — or feel superior because they aren’t as boring, as a couple, as these fictional characters. But if there’s a differential in humor between you at the end of the night, that could be awkward. I guess you run that risk with seeing any comedy in a romantic situation, though Lord knows it doesn’t stop us from trying.

Something else I wanted to bring up that has nothing to do with dates: Did you think it was odd that both of our protagonists are briefly depicted in jobs that seem rather realistic, and not at all exaggerated in the typical movie way? Fey is a real-estate agent biting her tongue over a potential lowball offer (and later, looking for former client Wahlberg), and Carell is an accountant vainly struggling to get his clients to make better choices. These are each brief scenes — maybe 2 minutes each — but it struck me that neither of them would have glamorous jobs, would they? That’s the kind of mundanity I actually like at the movies, proof that not everyone in the world is either a magazine editor or Jeremy Piven for a living.

Zoe: You make valid points. I mean, my threshold for a “date movie” is “do we both want to see it?” Because, frankly, if we don’t, why bother? We both have friends we could see non-desired movies with. This might seem like unwillingness to appreciate others tastes, but it is largely me protecting people from my own taste. Not everyone wants to see Step Up 3D and I respect that.

I actually thing the soul-crushing mundanity (this is a word that i am using, deal with it, spell-checker!) is actually one of the better and more subversive elements of the film, though it certainly makes it dull to watch. I mean, yea, after a while relationships get sleepy and apparently the only food you ever desire is the same steak every week. It’s, like the afore-mentioned dull jobs, is not glamorizing this not demonizing this–it’s just sort of matter of fact. And it ties back into something else we both liked about the film: that the problems weren’t OH MY GOD DRAMA I WANT TO SLEEP WITH THE POOL BOY, but rather, hey, being middle aged sometimes means you’re boring? Let’s try and have fun! It’s nice that the problem is understated, but I also think this understated element is what lead to them thinking they had to add car chases.

Ellen: Is Mark Wahlberg the pool boy in this analogy?