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So, what does this have to do with Date Night?
Date Night is a comedic romantic comedy. The characters, played very vividly and sincerely by master comedians Tina Fey and Steve Carell, don’t change much at all throughout the course of the film. Despite the logline and the posters, they are never really all that estranged, and while their relationship faces a big potential obstacle and some smaller ones (two of their friends get divorced, which scares them – oh and also the shooting and car chases), the movie is more about how their sincere, couply relationship plays out against this backdrop than it is about them having marital problems.
This isn’t a movie like Stay Tuned, where you get the sense that the family really is in peril, the couple in it very well may get divorced or not survive, and where people need to rediscover why they have dedicated their lives to each other. In Date Night, Tina Fey’s and Steve Carell’s characters very sweetly love each other and treat each other well and respectfully through the whole thing.
And what you’d think is the premise of the movie – that a couple having trouble rekindles their relationship with the thrill of being thrust into desperately dangerous situations – isn’t the actual driving premise of the movie at all.
See, for those who didn’t see it, and that’s probably a lot of you, Date Night bills itself as a movie for both girls and guys. It’s for girls because it’s about love and relationships, and it’s for guys because it has mafia rooftop Mexican standoffs and other gunplay. It is for guys because scenes take place in a strip club, and it is for girls because Marky Mark is shirtless for much of it.
Yeah, whatever, right?
People assume this is reconciled in a sort of yin and yang kind of way – that the masculine side of the movie favors Steve Carell’s character, and the feminine side of the movie favors Tina Fey’s character, and the way they come together makes them a successful couple – but that’s not how it works at all. Steve Carell wants the same things Tina Fey wants — he even admits to man-crushing on Marky Mark. Steve Carell’s character and Tina Fey’s character are closer to mirrors of each other than opposites. They’re on the same page about most of what they do in the movie.
The comedy is actually about this couple that maintains its own constant, parallel relationship – mundane closeness to one another, cuteness, trepidation and sincerity – in the face of wildly differing expectations for their behavior. The only dramatic moments are when they share with each other how spooked they are by their friends’ divorce, and how much neither of them wants to do it.
And the thrill helps their marriage more because the obstacles give them opportunities to be themselves around each other when people are trying to get them not to – not because there is a dichotomy between boredom and danger. They are never really “into” being part of the action movie – Steve Carell talks plenty of times about just wanting to go home.
For example, there is a great moment in the movie when Steve Carell and Tina Fey attempt to escape some assassins at a Central Park boathouse by stealing a motorboat. The only problem? The motorboat goes comically slowly.
This is the Frank Drebn-style scene. This is the comedy of people not changing. Of course the boat these people take doesn’t go very fast. They don’t want it to go very fast. The kind of boats these people would take are touristy boats on a nice Saturday afternoon if they find the time. They are more scared by the idea that external expectations are going to force them to break up than they actually want to break up themselves.
The only way the characters really change is they become a lot fonder of PDA (and I ain’t talkin’ iPads). But you get the sense in the movie they were really into it the whole time and just never told each other before.
And because of this, the whole action subplot is not a bullshit failure of a dramatic twist – no, it just doesn’t matter. It doesn’t change the characters. It’s not the main plot of the movie. Instead, it’s just another distraction, another disruption we get to watch this very sweet, sincere honest couple deal with – and of course few things are funnier than unexpected honesty.
The action plot, in itself, is just a joke.
Yeah, it’s nonsense, but aliens could descend halfway through the movie, and as long as Tina Fey and Steve Carell confronted it as their constant, constantly sweet, very firmly established comedic characters, it doesn’t really matter. It’s just heightening.
This is a lot different from dramas, where what happens and how the character reacts does matter, because the character has an arc and has to change. If the character’s change happens for no reason or stupid reasons, then it sucks. This sort of lapse is very obvious in action movies, when huge sacrifices in plot are made to set up action set pieces, and if it just gets too nonsensical it makes me actively angry, because the characters end up doing things for no reason.
It is not nearly as troubling in a comedy when somebody does something for no reason – as long as it is consistent to that person’s character. Because, after all, there are few things funnier than unexpected truths people don’t tend to voice, and fewer unvoiced truths as widely shared as the one that says a lot of things don’t happen for any reason at all, and you should just try to get by and enjoy it.
P.S. — I have the pleasure of re-announcing (since we’ve probably announced it already), that Overthinking It’s facebook fans have passed a critical numerical threshold. Oh, what was that number again… I know I had it around here somewhere…
Here’s to the next 9,000! Become an OTI fan on Facebook!