Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Date Night

I saw this movie. Voluntarily! I needed to see a movie, so I saw it, a month or so after it came out. I got through it fine. It went down okay.

I find something persistently, finally, synecdochic in this film. The characters in Date Night stand in for our experience--the viewers' experience--with the movie itself, and for all of us in our experiences with shitty popular culture.

The crazy adventure plot that married suburbanites Tina Fey and Steve Carell are thrust into isn't just dumb, it's amateurish. The mistaken identity story is holey and thin--set pieces strung together--and gets especially preposterous toward the end. There is a mobster named "Joe Miletto" whose name gets repeated oft and loud they way they do in a 22-minute sitcom to get you to quickly understand it's somebody important ("You don't know ____? He's only the ____-est thing since [real person _______ is modeled after]!"). There is an expensive pointless car-chase scene that justifies Date Night's existence as a feature film and not a TV pilot. The corrupt cops (oh Common) glower menacingly. There are blackmail photos and helicopters on rooftops and a strip club...whatever. It's a joke.

So, the movie's mostly bad, but that's not the problem or a surprise: it's the good parts that worry. Fey and Carrell, never movie star types in the traditional sense--that's their schtick, in this film and out of it--can be funny and even subtle at times. Their characters are limned against the obviousness and stereotypes around them, but not with a smug superiority all ready to be smashed: they can be goofy and vulnerable. They sneak a cell phone pic with Will.i.am; Fey reveals a silly crush on Mark Wahlberg's character. The scene in the strip club is a classic Fey gag: they make it clear they know what this is all about ("Work that pole like a runaway," she tells her husband) before fake pole-dancing badly, unsexily. They sort of take the edge off how stupid the plot is by nudging collective cultural thinking at the same time.

But why are they there at all? The funny and redeemable parts of this film occur because they're trapped in it, but they're not Ted Knight, sputtering with impotent snobbery in a captain's hat; they're us. Kind of. (Not really. But you know what I mean.) And they are complicit in the crap around them. They're in this 88-minute cage of their salary. They're smart and the movie's dumb.

Good actors have always been thrust in bad movie vehicles, winking at the audience about it with varying success, so that isn't so remarkable. The reason Date Night stands out is because of the unusually strong contrast between a film that feels like it is not even trying and characters who are in many ways a construct of our media sophistication. This movie is redeemed by occasional observational (and improvised) humor that with just a slight change in focus would take it apart.

That feels familiar, somehow, in ways that aren't just about movie plots. It feels like the flow of information around us, where the intelligent dialogue sometimes seems like it only happens on some removed level. The stakes are higher, and the discussion gets smarter (sometimes) and more short-handed (always), and in the meantime...junk is everywhere. We pick and choose what we want from the huge flow of information--too much, maybe--but that doesn't mean we really avoid the idiotic crap in the end. It all comes up in the net.

Date Night is only a bad movie, made by a director who specializes in these kinds of bad movies (Night at the Museum hurt) and I just used the word "limn," which makes me feel a little dirty. Also: this much vague but crippling cynicism is not flattering, and I apologize for that. But this movie seems to be a symbol of how bad movies can be at the same time they know they are, and that feels familiar and wrong.

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