A friend of mine mentioned the other day that he thought Date Night was a remake. For the record, it’s not, but it’s not difficult to see why he thought it was. The premise, combined with the relentlessly goofy trailer, make it seem as if the movie came right out of the eighties. And the movie itself can only confirm its goofball comedy roots, with its light plotting, its reliance on its leads, its big action set pieces, and the presence of Jackie Wilson’s “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher” on the soundtrack. Strong performances from two of the strongest comedic stars in the business today make it all rather pleasant, though it does feel a little dated.
Phil and Claire Foster (Steve Carrell and Tina Fey) are married and living in the suburbs. Worried that their marriage is losing its spark, the two decide to break out of the comfort zone and try to get a table at a trendy Manhattan restaurant. Unable to get in without a reservation, Phil acts on impulse and takes the reservation of a couple that didn’t show, the Tripplehorns. What follows is a case of mistaken identity, the Fosters suddenly finding themselves in the middle of a search for a stolen flash drive while being pursued by armed thugs, mobsters, and the police.
The film’s dedication to its plot is loose at best. There’s a sketchy feel to the entire movie, as if the scenes were conceived separately from the overall plot. Unburdened by the demands of narrative, the movie unleashes quite a few humongous laughs, but they pay for it when it comes time to tie loose ends together and provide a resolution. The whole third act is a mess of convolutions, the script barely able to squeeze all the main players into a single location, leading up to a strange, overly contrived climactic scene.
It feels a lot like a comedy from the eighties, having much in common to the Vacation films. Here we find another suburban couple trying to add a little excitement to their life and ending up with too much excitement. The Fosters are the modern day Griswolds, except they aren’t really all that modern. Sensibilities have changed in the last twenty or so years, but Date Night remains staunchly in the past, getting by mostly on slapstick and wacky hijinks. In one scene, the couple has escaped pursuers via a small boat. When they get to the other side of the pond, they decide to carry the boat with them, flipping it over and holding it over their heads. It makes for kind of a funny visual, but it doesn’t make a lot of sense. The scene ends with them hitting a tree, a lazy punchline to an already strained sequence.
The brightest spots in the film have the main actors simply riffing, eschewing the comedic mugging in favor of sharp, often absurd improv. Viewers of their respective television shows already know just how funny Steve Carrell and Tina Fey can be. They are at their best when left to their own devices, letting their strange rhythms and unique deliveries give the film some personality. Their hold their own in the dramatic department as well, hitting home runs in the rare occasions they’re allowed to showcase some emotional truth. There are plenty of recognizable names in the supporting cast, but outside of a scene stealing James Franco, there isn’t really much going on in that department.
Now there’s still plenty to love in those old John Landis or Harold Ramis eighties comedies, but they were really products of their time. Date Night, despite references to all sorts of things current and modern, still manages to feel dated. The lead performances help make it agreeable enough, but it doesn’t stack up against the more ambitious, character-centric or mind-bendingly absurd comedies of the last few years. The TV shows that Carrell and Fey are on have gone to great lengths to establish new comedic sensibilities. This feels like a bit of a step back.