On the Aisle
By Tony Macklin
In today’s movie comedies, wit is as rare as Angostura bitters. If movie comedies were stored at the supermarket, most would be in the day-old section. They certainly aren’t fresh.
Comedy doesn’t have to be raw, but it shouldn’t be wilted. The marketplace of comedy is all in a row.
In frozen foods is Steve Martin. A once-fresh, once-imaginative comedy master, Martin has lost his comic soul at the movies. Martin remakes classic movies he should never redo. Peter Sellers made Clouseau comic gold; Martin reprises him into dross.
Martin does remakes and then even adds a sequel to them: “The Pink Panther” (2006 and 2009), “Cheaper by the Dozen” (2003 and 2005), and “Father of the Bride” (1995 and 1991). Move over Peter Sellers, Clifton Webb and Spencer Tracy … Steve Martin can’t think up anything new, so he squats on your creations.
Steve Carell seemed about to follow in Martin’s squeaky footsteps. Carell made a mediocre movie out of TV’s classic “Get Smart.” Was he too headed for freezer burn? But lo and behold, Carell joined Tina Fey in a movie that’s not a remake. Well, not exactly. But it turns out to be a connect-the-dots project.
“Date Night” is another in an onerous line of assembly line productions. First you get name comedians. Carell and Fey fit the bill. Then you come up with a marketable premise: TGIF (actually Tuesday) meets “SNL.”
The premise is that a couple in suburban New Jersey tries to spice up their marriage with a night out in the big city. It winds up in mayhem that is supposed to be “laugh out loud” funny.
But then you slack off. Stars and a sketchy plot are enough quality. You hire a third-rate director and a third-rate writer and hope that the stars will leaven the proceedings with enough good ad libs.
Guess who was picked to direct “Date Night”? Shawn Levy. Levy directed Martin’s remakes of “The Pink Panther” and “Cheaper by the Dozen.”
The writer is Josh Klausner who is credited with additional screenplay material for “Shrek The Third.” “Additional screenplay material”?
So you have a plumber and a used car salesman as director and writer.
Levy is heavy-handed. He tries to enliven matters with tired — no, exhausted — bits, such as the couple running into a glass door. Really. Or the wife running into drawers that have been left open. Or the husband vomiting. Oh boy, riotous. Levy himself spews a series of car crashes. The very essence of comedy.
Perhaps the most depressing element in “Date Night” is the outtakes of ad libs at the end. Of course, they make the actors howl with laughter.
Fey comes up with several ad libs that a woman they witness at a restaurant might say. The one chosen for the film is, “I’m going home now and fart in a shoe box.” Fey is a regular Dorothy Parker.
It’s difficult to tell the ad libs from the scripted lines since both are strained and without wit. Carell and Fey made sure the writer wasn’t any more eloquent than they were.
A flash drive is a major plot device in the movie. Fey says about the flash drive: “In the office we call it a computer sticky thing.” Who wants to take credit for that writing?
Carell asks: “What’s wrong with my penis?” The dialogue is not daring, it’s flaccid.
Carell and Fey are likable but severely limited. Carell was memorable in “The 40 Year Old Virgin,” but that was a movie with a solid script, effective ad libs, and direction. “Date Night” has none of these assets.
Fey is a superb aper. Her mimicry of the Alaskan Kinkajou is a classic. But she is a skit comedienne who can’t carry a movie.
“Date Night” is a comedy in which writing and direction don’t matter. That’s not funny.
Tony Macklin, a former college English and film professor, is still foraging for truth in literature and film, in Arkansas, Las Vegas and beyond.