Forgiving Date Night

Forgiving Date Night

Comedy is when characters don’t change. Date Night is when a $10 ticket is only $1 or $2 too much.

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So, what does this have to do with Date Night?

One of the cool things about Date Night is that the main characters are very similar to each other. There is very little hogwash in it about essential differences between men and women.

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.

If we show more of this, will more ladies read Overthinking It?

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!

6 Comments on “Forgiving Date Night”

  1. Joe #

    I like what you have said here. Would you have any comment on ‘The Break Up’, where the characters are very strained in their relationship and end up breaking up? Admittedly, ‘The Break Up’ is more of a drama than a comedy.


  2. fenzel #


    I haven’t seen “The Break Up,” but if I wanted to make a movie called “The Break Up” that felt very comedic, I’d start with the characters broken up in all but name — to the point where it is obvious to the audience that their relationship is basically a formality — and then see what happens when that formality puts them under pressure.

    It’s clear they’re happier when they’re not together, both of them are having affairs with different people with whom you know they’d both be happier — and really that they’re okay with this situation and okay with each other — picture a scene in which they go to a dinner party together and it’s obvious they don’t know anything at all about what the other is doing and are fine with it, which makes all the other guests uncomfortable. Like one gets the other one’s job wrong or something. And one doesn’t know why the other one has a tan.

    And then something comes along and forces them to spend more time together than they really want to, makes them feel like they are actually in a relationship — and it terrifies them both, but they don’t want to show it to each other. Maybe they have to get married for some reason, and they try to do it because they think they have to. Hijinks ensue.

    Then, the Break Up that happens would be a relief and a confirmation (perhaps said at exactly the same time while they are at the altar or something), and the characters are really happy and get to go on being who they are.

    I’d love to see a comedy in which a Break Up is an unambiguously good thing that everybody wants to see happen.

    A movie in which a couple that is unhappy but wants to stay together decides to split, and that’s the central action of it, is going to tend to be more dramatic, because it’s hard for that to happen, and it involves a lot of change and personal loss.

    And if you put really silly jokes into a movie like that, it won’t work as well, because in order to execute on the drama, you have to preserve the plausibility, arc and chain of causality — which is not something you have to do with a straight-up comedy. In a straight-up comedy, the constancy of the characters can stand in for the constancy of the plot.


  3. Jon Eric #

    Is the rest of Stay Tuned as good as that link you posted? Somehow I’ve never even heard of it!

    Back on-topic, however: I find it interesting how, just based on the trailer and the :30 TV spots, it looks as though the distributors are trying to impose upon it that very same male/female dichotomy that you claim it consciously avoids. Look at the opening and closing scenes of this trailer, for instance.

    Opening scene: Carrell is frustrated because Fey has put in her mouthguard, signifying another routine, dull, sexless night.

    Closing scene (queue to about 2:20): Fey says “whacked off,” when she means simply “whacked.” Typical woman, mistaking the terminology from the man’s territory – gangster movies. Carrell patronizingly corrects her.

    I saw the full version of that scene when they played the clip on The Daily Show, and it’s more apparent in that version that, after a moment’s reflection, Tina Fey’s character does indeed figure out why saying “whacked off” is so funny, and in fact she starts giggling along with him.

    So…. interesting. Yeah.


  4. Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

    Stay Tuned is wonderful. One of my favorites growing up. I’m kind of afraid to watch it now, because it can’t possibly be as clever as I remember it being. But if you ever wanted to see the principal from Ferris Bueller swordfight, your wish is granted.


  5. Gab #

    I certainly like your idea for a movie called “The Break Up” than the actual movie- I couldn’t finish the real one.

    Over WHAT?!?!!?

    Anyhoo, I suppose I differ in that I notice and get annoyed with random acts by characters in comedies AND dramas and action films, but also in that while I may notice it everywhere, when it comes to action, I tend to be somewhat forgiving. The way I see it, if an action movie’s point is action, I don’t care (too much) how it happens (sometimes); and, likewise, if a comedy’s point is comedy, then I’m often okay with contrived ways for that comedy to show up.


  6. fenzel #

    @ Jon Eric

    Yes, Stay Tuned is that good. Very different, much darker movie than Date Night, and John Ritter is the perfect lead actor for it. It’s a bit before its time — in this day when they’ve really tried to twist around the romantic marriage comedy and adding elements of guy movies and black comedy to spice them up, it would have fit in much better than back in the age of Sleepless in Seattle.

    Also, yes, the marketing makes this movie look a lot more cliche and gender-slanted than it is. There are other scenes where Tina Fey wants sex and Steve Carell doesn’t — they don’t show that on the trailers, because trailers aren’t really about symmetry, they’re about clarifying the logline. And there are other times where Tina Fey says foul stuff correctly and with zest — the best in the film is probably about farting into a shoebox, but there are funnier ones in the outtakes.

    The scenes where people call Steve Carell androgynous, and he kind of gets into it and plays the part are also an example of how the movie has a slight subtheme of blurring the line that separates genders by essential characteristics.


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