Taking an everyperson– that’s an everyman or an everywoman for you PC types out there– and throwing them into an extraordinary circumstance can provide a path to success in storytelling if the person spinning the yarn knows what they’re doing. In a way, I think we respond more to the everyperson than we do to the action movie heroes and heroines who are bred by screenwriters to excel in larger-than-life situations; I know that I can never be a John Rambo or a King Leonidas, but maybe I could be a John McClane or perhaps a Wikus van de Merwe. They’re regular guys just like me, after all! (Maybe I’m stretching with the McClane example; I have far too much hair to ever be Bruce Willis, and I frequently am in need of a hair cut.) When you center your film around regular, boring people forced to respond to a scenario far above their life station, you’re giving your audience a hero they can immediately identify with. It’s instant engagement! How can you lose?
Shawn Levy’s probably the perfect candidate to answer that question, because he takes what could have been pure comedy gold (I would have at least been please with a gratifying chucklefest) and manages to make it into one of the most hateful, vile, contemptuous, and awful crimes committed against celluloid since the heyday of D.W Griffith.Date Night, by all means, shouldn’t be as horrible as it is; there’s a lot of talent on board here, from principles Steve Carell and Tina Fey to supporting players like James Franco and Taraji P. Henson, but talent’s no obstacle to fucking up the money when you’re the same person responsible for the Pink Panther remake, Cheaper By the Dozen, and Just Married. Levy proves himself here to be a professional bungler adept at screwing up anything he’s given the keys to; a mistaken identity movie featuring Carrell and Fey as a married couple being chased by Common and professional skeezy guy Jimmi Simpson could have been hilarious, and it ends up feeling like a cry for help.
How do people like Fey and Carell find themselves so unfortunately mixed up in dreck of this magnitude? The film follows the above storyline in which the two stars, married with children, decide to go out to a fancy restaurant notorious for being difficult to obtain reservations for and end up lying about their identities to snag a table reserved for another couple; they end up being mistaken by the absentee diners (James Franco and Mila Kunis), who, it turns out, have pissed off Ray Liotta’s mob boss stereotype, and our two protagonists quickly find themselves in way over their heads. Should hilarity ensue? None of the actors here could be called a slouch, after all, and you’d think a movie with this much name talent could at least elicit one or two cracked smiles.
But Levy’s a humor sponge. Guy just settles into his director’s chair and absorbs anything and everything funny in his movies and squeezes it back out into filthy, diluted anti-humor. That’s the only explanation I can muster, because how a movie with this many comically gifted people in it could be so painfully unfunny is completely beyond me. If you’ve ever sat through a comedy waiting for it to get funny, Date Night may be a wholly new experience for you because you stop waiting only ten minutes in– Levy makes it plain pretty quickly that he neither has no intention of actually pulling off a punchline successfully nor the ability to put together a satisfying action set piece. I suppose in that light Levy’s actually doing us all a big favor, though I’m enough of a sucker that I sat through the other 78 minutes, though every fiber of my being told me I should walk out (and I watched this from the safety of my own home).
Date Night‘s only source of interest comes from its meta quality. After all, Fey and Carell are basically playing themselves here; just like the Fosters, they’re a fish-out-of-water pair totally unable to comprehend how they got themselves in their respective position in the first place. I guess I can’t feel too much pity for them– you get what you pay for when you intentionally sign up for a Levy project– but their performances almost feel natural by virtue of the congruity between the actors and their characters.
Can you tell that I’m really reaching to find anything remotely positive to say about Date Night? I’ll bet you can. And as far as the rest of the film goes, well, I’ve said it all already; Levy starts things off humorlessly and chooses to keep them that way all the way up to what is maybe one of the most embarrassingly staged and defiantly contrived endings to a picture that I’ve seen in the last five or six years. I’m being completely honest when I say that I believe the film’s premise could actually have been done justice in the hands of a less willfully obnoxious and terrible director, and maybe that’s the nicest thing I can say about Date Night; someone else could have done it better. If my own words, and Levy’s track record, aren’t enough to convince you to avoid this one like the plague, then that comment alone should tell you all that you need to hear. Take it from me: do something fun, like complete your taxes or brush your teeth, instead of watching this movie.