CHICAGO – Mention the name Harry Lennix, and images of his many character roles are bound to emerge – Harold Cooper in the TV series “The Blacklist,” General Swanwick from “Batman v Superman” and Commissioner Blades from Spike Lee’s recent “Chi-Raq.” The deeply knowledgeable Lennix brings his years of dramatic expertise, as he directs the Congo Square Theatre Company’s world premiere stage play “A Small Oak Tree Runs Red.’
Steve Carrell, Tina Fey Go Dutch on the Laughs in ‘Date Night’
CHICAGO – In this schizophrenic film, Steve Carrell and Tina Fey portray a “normal” couple from New Jersey who somehow become Steve Carrell and Tina Fey once they go on-the-town in New York City during “Date Night.”
Carell and Fey play Phil and Claire Foster, the only-in-the-movies harried couple with the house that causes real estate drool (but Fey does one scene in her job as a real estate agent that makes fun of this concept). They have a scheduled date night every week, but even that has fallen into a rut. When a couple they know announce their separation (Mark Ruffalo & Kristen Wiig), it’s time to reevaluate both their passion and their date night.
They roll into New York City from Jersey, where they go to Claw, a hot restaurant in post millennial Manhattan. Shunned of course by the counter people, they are relegated to the $20-a-drink bar. Phil gets an idea when an announced couple doesn’t show – they will take their reservation.
This begins a night of mistaken identity. It seems the people they stole their reservation from also are holding a USB memory stick that contains sensitive information. When threatened by some dirty cops, the couple gets away and seeks some help from one of Claire’s old clients (Mark Wahlberg).
Photo Credit: © Twentieth Century Fox Corp.
What follows is a riotous night of car chases, shirtlessness (by Wahlberg) and an encounter with the real couple who has the evidence. Date night is about to change their future world.
The two main drawbacks to this mishmash are simply Carrell and Fey playing boring, ordinary people (impossible, given their established personas) and a plot that wouldn’t hold up in Screenplay 101. But luckily neither gets in the way of the main reason to see the film – Carrell and Fey playing around.
The word schizophrenia is the descriptive because anytime Carrell and Fey “portray” their characters, the air seems sucked out of the atmosphere. When they become “Steve Carrell” and “Tina Fey,” they produce laughs from the stupidest of circumstances. For example, their riff on a hepster couple from NYC was perfectly expressed by Steve and Tina, not Phil and Claire.
Steve Carrell is particularly weird as a character actor. He has been at his worst (”Get Smart,” “Evan Almighty”) when he is straitjacketed to some presupposed high concept. When playing lower key, like “Little Miss Sunshine” or “The 40 Year Old Virgin,” he seems to nail it down more. Interesting that both of those lower key films are ensemble pieces.
In a way, both Carrell and Fey can never be the husband and wife they portray. Their tender, couple-like moments are awkward. They are much more comfortable improvising a pole dance or firing an absurd weapon. The wish is to simply have the type of film where an off-screen audience yells suggestions to the pair, and then lets them go from there. That’s the funny.
Photo Credit: Suzanne Tenner for © Twentieth Century Fox Corp.
The supporting roles range from right to wrong – is Kristen Wiig ever right? Mark Wahlberg gets to show the moneymaker again by staying shirtless and that bit does become increasingly funnier. James Franco gets a good shot at establishing his mondo bizarro freak show as a character called Taste, which in his hands is a meal more than a snack.
The action sequences have a strange quality as well. A car chase that doesn’t go as planned is uncreative on the surface, but for some reason gets better just because they gamely stick with it. It’s like a guest that won’t leave; if just by making amends with that fact it might turn out to be fun.
Bottom line, “Date Night” has some very funny moments. And even during the regression back to the characters or plot, the sly insanity of Carell and Fey can even deliver beyond the funny ha-ha to the funny ‘I get it.’ No mean feat.