Marriage counseling and the therapeutic aesthetics of Date Night
Watching Date Night, surrounded by middle class married couples at the local cineplex, I found myself brooding about marital angst.
The film juxtaposes a "boring couple from New Jersey" with Manhattan hipsters, and for awhile, Phil (Steve Carrell) and Claire Foster (Tina Fey) get mistaken for a more exciting twosome who would know where a mafioso's secret flash drive is. With a plot device lifted from Hitchcock's North by Northwest, director Shawn Levy has the Fosters claim to be the "Tripplehorns" in order to get a table in a crowded fancy Manhattan eatery known as Claw, but then two shady looking characters take them outside and pull guns on them, demanding to know the location of the microfilm, I mean, flash drive.
From that point on, the Fosters have various After Hours-type marital action comedy adventures involving a stolen car, police chases, gunplay, a near-escape from a boat house, a shirtless Mark Wahlberg, a strip bar, and so on even as they take breaks at times to discuss the state of their marriage. Claire confesses that she's exhausted by working all day and taking care of the kids at night. Phil reproaches her for not letting him help her more at home. Claire admits that she would like to go off to a hotel room by herself, where no one can touch her, and enjoy a Diet Sprite. For a moment, the movie wakes up to the possibility of more emotional nuances (as if the leads had taken over the script momentarily from Josh Klausner, who wrote Shrek the Third), but then the movie returns to its well-trodden path.
By appearing in the uncredited role as mafioso Joey Miletto, Ray Liotta reminded me of Jeff Daniels' much more subversive dip into a dangerous lifestyle in 1986's Something Wild, but Date Night remains trapped in its eagerness to please all of the breeding couples of middle America, and by doing so, blands itself out. What is modern-day marriage? Date Night characterizes it as sexual frustration, boredom with everyday routine, overwork, servitude to children, feeble attempts at regaining romance, middle-aged drift, reductive role-playing for one's spouse, and most of all, perpetual semi-comatose fatigue. All of this may be quite accurate, but I can't see how embarking on an evening of tired gangster hijinx would help any.
Take for instance, the comparison with North by Northwest. While both films begin in much the same way with a case of mistaken identity (although Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) is very single), Hitchcock carries Roger off to meet Philip Vandamm, a villain played with such smooth ironic smarts by James Mason, he makes the goons, corrupt government officials, and mafiosos of Date Night look like munchkins. Also, in the midst of his high speed cat and mouse game across the US, Roger gets to romance Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) on the 20th Century Limited train enroute to Chicago. The Fosters, in comparison, use their evening for mere rekindling. In comparison to North by Northwest's wit, scope, set piece scenes, wildly varied locations, and playful subversions of thriller tropes, Date Night views like relationship counseling, the cinematic equivalent to a Women's Day's article "7 Ways to Revive Your Marriage": "Praise your husband, even if you don't feel like it" or "Take a class together, play paintball or even speak pig Latin to each other for a day." Tina Fey even dresses up in lingerie and pole dances late in the movie to help fire up Phil's ardor, just as any self-respecting relationship counselor might recommend.
Even as Fey and Carrell bring some nuances to their roles, meditating on the way married couples can turn into little more than "excellent roommates," the made-for-TV conventionality of their night's misadventures resembles a pseudo-subversive Disney ride for adults. Harried people from the suburbs can have excitement too, the film says, just so long as it's safely and inoffensively packaged. The Fosters can play at being a pimp and a prostitute, break into people's apartments, steal cars, and so on just so they can realize how much their regular lives of overwork and sacrifice for their children can be cheerfully affirmed and returned to in the morning.