In Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, Lt. Archie Hicox delivers the (soon-to-be) immortal line, “there’s a special rung in hell reserved for those who waste good scotch.” The quip was written by Tarantino, a director used to capitalising on his sprawling and talented cast. I wonder then what punishment will be doled out to director Shawn Levy when he leaves this Earthly plane. His crimes against scotch are probably innocuous, but his predilection for wasting good comic actors should see him spend at least few years toiling in some sort of comedy graveyard (preferably wherever they write episodes for Two and A Half Men).
Levy’s previous films include Night at the Museum 1 & 2, as well as the much maligned re-imagining of The Pink Panther. Each of his pictures feature an almost offensive number of immensely talented actors and comedians, from Ben Stiller to Steve Martin, Amy Adams to Kevin Kline, Emily Mortimer to Christopher Guest and so on and so on. Any of these actors would normally be more than capable of stealing any film they star in. But there is a flatness to Levy’s films, both visually and narratively, that strangles his gifted cast into seeming less than.
So here comes Levy’s latest film, Date Night. Maybe I seem a little cruel for wanting to damn the director just as he delivers his funniest film. Yes, Date Night is Levy’s best film to date. It moves a lot quicker than his other bloated efforts and at least features some characters grounded in reality (kinda). But is it really worth celebrating? Sure the laughs are slightly more frequent than in his previous works, but they rarely achieve more than a light chuckle. Take a look at his assembled cast: Tina Fey, Steve Carell, Mark Wahlberg, Taraji P. Henson, Mark Ruffalo, Kristen Wiig, James Franco, Mila Kunis, William Fichtner, Ray Liotta, Common, Jimmi Simpson, J.B. Smoove (the list, maddeningly, goes on). This movie should be hilarious. Instead, it’s just O.K. And since when did ‘just O.K’ become O.K?
Three paragraphs of ranting. That should be enough, right? Onto the film. Carell and Fey star as Phil and Claire Foster, a married couple tired of their suburban existence; tired of chasing after their kids; tired of their office-drone existence; tired of being tired. When their regularly scheduled date night rolls around, they can barely muster the energy to leave the house. In an effort to keep the flame alive, Phil and Claire decide to head out on the town for a real, romantic rendezvous. Things start auspiciously enough. They settle on having dinner at a swanky Manhattan restaurant, even going so far as to pose as ‘the Tripplehorns’, a random couple whose reservation was left wanting. Talk about picking the wrong random couple to imitate. Seems this duo is involved in some nefarious business involving New York gangsters and crooked cops. Suddenly Phil and Claire find themselves on the run, desperately trying to keep from being “whacked off”. And as is to be expected, hijinks ensue.
I hardly need to tell you that neither Steve Carell nor Tina Fey stretch particularly far from their television personas here. This isn’t exactly a bad thing. You’re unlikely to find two funnier, more likable comic actors than these two. They don’t exactly give Date Night their all, but their unbeatable comic timing and natural charm cannot be bogged down by even the laziest of scripts. And it is a lazy script. Written by Josh Klausner (ominously, of Shrek the Third and Shrek Forever After fame), the screenplay never takes any particularly sharp, or even interesting turns. Needless to say, North By Northwest is not in risk of losing its crown as the funniest and most-action packed mistaken-identity caper.
James Franco and Mila Kunis are memorable as the real Tripplehorns. In fact, the entire cast is given at least one nice moment, which is a nice change from Levy’s previous films (in which most actors enjoyed more screen time when their name appears during the credits). What can I say? I laughed on more than one occasion. But I also sighed a lot too. I can’t help but feel that a better film could have been made out of a 30 Rock/The Office crossover fanfiction. As it stands, Date Night is a perfectly harmless, mostly enjoyable comedy. But it is also a disappointment. On a separate note, it is also one of the worst looking major Hollywood films to see release in the past few years. Director Levy employs HD video recording to disastrous effect, achieving the low-rent quality that the film’s screenplay probably deserves. It makes you appreciate the work Michael Mann is doing with HD. He’d probably make a funnier movie too.