Date Night is a broad comedy rescued by its talented sitcom stars. Elsewhere, How to Train Your Dragon is a visual feast in 3-D, and Greenberg delivers a touching portrait of middle-aged malaise.
Ever embarrassed to admit to people that you liked a movie you know you probably shouldn't have? Then you'll know how I feel about my reaction to Date Night. Thankfully, I feel no such guilt in my admiration of the other two movies on this list.
Date Night (20th Century Fox)
If this review ends up reading a bit like an apology, well, what can I say: I know that there's no good reason for me to have liked Date Night. It's a broad, obvious comedy that tries to capitalize on a modern-day concern -- the difficulty for married couples to balance romance and family -- by putting it through the creaky, familiar scenario of the mistaken-identity genre. But as much as I disapprove when other people forgive a mediocre movie because "I just liked the people in it," I have to own up to the fact that I gave Date Night a pass because of its two leads. This isn't a good film, but Steve Carell and Tina Fey are quite good in it, almost despite everything that's been placed around them in this movie.
Directed by Shawn Levy (the Night at the Museum films) and written by Josh Klausner, Date Night starts with a likeable, relatable premise. Phil (Carell) and Claire Foster (Fey) are successful New Jersey suburbanites with two children; they still love each other, but the slow drain of demanding jobs and a hectic home has sapped their sex life. Fearful of falling into a rut, especially after a fellow married couple announce that they're splitting up, Phil and Claire decide to supersize their typical "date night" by going into Manhattan for a lavish romantic evening.
The night starts off promisingly when they manage to land a table at a snooty exclusive restaurant by pretending to be a couple who didn't show up to claim their reservation. But before you can say North by Northwest, the Fosters are confronted by two thugs (Jimmi Simpson and rapper Common) who assume that they're the other couple, threatening to kill them unless they give up a flash drive that supposedly contains sensitive information. The Fosters try to explain the misunderstanding, but soon they're on the run through New York as they try to clear their name and get to the bottom of who has this mysterious flash drive.
In its structure, Date Night is a combination of two consecutive Woody Allen films: Its relationship crisis inspired by the separation of married friends recalls 1992's Husbands and Wives, while its comedy-mystery narrative meant to help reignite a couple's moribund love harkens back to its follow-up, Manhattan Murder Mystery. Of course, one of the disadvantages of Date Night is that its slow stretches allowed me to ponder at length how much I preferred those two films to Levy's.
But while Date Night's thriller element is easily its weak link, I found myself enjoying the ride simply because Carell and Fey are so winning as the self-described boring, old married couple. Though they both appear on successful sitcoms -- The Office and 30 Rock, respectively -- there was no guarantee that they'd work well together on the big screen. If anything, it's more normal that TV comedians end up making dreadful feature choices, which has certainly been the case when you look at Carell's spotty film resume. In starring roles in which he was expected to generate laughs, he floundered in the awful Evan Almighty and largely channeled Don Knotts in Get Smart. But in Date Night, he's as relaxed as he's even been, working his reliably stressed-regular-guy persona to good effect. As for Fey, I thought she was great in the under-appreciated Baby Mama, and here again she's a consistently funny presence as Phil's harried, slightly square wife. Perhaps most importantly, they have a warm charisma that suggests a couple who are past the giggly delight of initial infatuation and have settled into a deep, lifelong love affair. Movies are not great at portraying such relationships, but Carell and Fey do it quite effortlessly.
Date Night may drift from mildly amusing sequence to needlessly hyperbolic action set piece, but Carell and Fey quite remarkably maintain their dignity, managing to be funny without ever seeming superior to the slipshod material. In the annals of cinematic achievement, that's hardly a miraculous feat, but think about all the bad romantic comedies in which you can tell that the two leads are bored and trying to clue the audience into the fact that they realize that they're starring in crap. For all its limitations, Date Night ultimately works because Carell and Fey seem to bend the film to their will, as opposed to reluctantly going with the flow and cashing a paycheck. I said at the beginning of this review that there's no good reason to like Date Night, but that's not true: There are actually two good reasons.
How to Train Your Dragon (Dreamworks Animation)
Because Dreamworks Animation is still closely associated with the Shrek series in the collective consciousness -- a popular but by no means creatively innovative franchise -- it can be easily assumed that the brand still doesn't have the artistic cachet of Pixar. And while that's true for the most part, in the last few years Dreamworks has produced three animated films that are, if not the equal of their Pixar competitors, at least worthy peers. Kung Fu Hustle boasted an utterly gorgeous style, and Monsters Vs. Aliens was a pop-savvy concoction that was also quite often very funny. Now comes How to Train Your Dragon, which again lacks the fundamental specialness that keeps it from reaching the elevated level of genius of a Wall-E but is a real visual feast. You don't need to waste your money ponying up extra bucks for Clash of the Titans or Alice in Wonderland in 3-D, but it's absolutely worth it for Dragon.
The story, based on Cressida Cowell's book, retells the old E.T./Iron Giant narrative: An awkward teen Viking outsider named Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) befriends a dragon (his tribe's sworn enemy) and learns that they have more in common than first realized. It's not a particularly interesting plot, and it largely plays out the way you'd expect, but directors Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders mostly use it as an excuse to craft superb flying sequences and action set pieces that capture more wide-eyed wonder and suspense than the screenplay ever does. But even if Dragon leads with its visuals, be glad that Dreamworks has largely moved away from the inane pop-culture referencing and wiseass temperament that marked the Shrek films. Dragon isn't an instant classic, but it's got emotion and darkness in it, making me hopeful that the company is but one perfectly realized idea away from true greatness.
Greenberg (Focus Features)
Of writer-director Noah Baumbach's recent trilogy of obnoxious-protagonist films, his latest, Greenberg, is his weakest. But that didn't keep me from admiring it immensely. Greenberg (Ben Stiller) has recently relocated to Los Angeles from New York to housesit his well-to-do brother's family home while they're out of the country, which brings him into contact with Florence (Greta Gerwig), the family's nanny/personal assistant. Greenberg is an angry, distrustful guy in his 40s who enjoys writing letters of complaint to all the companies whose products and services displease him. Florence is a dizzy, directionless gal in her 20s who, I have to say, is the sort you encounter everywhere in Los Angeles. (I don't know if they exist in other cities, but they swarm our fair metropolis.) Still in love with his ex-girlfriend (Baumbach's wife Jennifer Jason Leigh), who won't take him back, Greenberg falls into a relationship with Florence almost by default, although it's clear that the young woman takes their courtship far more seriously than he does.
Greenberg isn't the first film to explore the romantic misadventures of a miserable older man and an impressionable younger woman, but Baumbach places the relationship in the periphery, as if it's just one of the problems gnawing at his main character. (There's a reason the film's called Greenberg and not Greenberg & Florence.)With that said, of his recent films this one feels the least focused -- The Squid and the Whale and Margot at the Wedding weren't exactly page-turning potboilers, but they were driven by the furious anxieties of their characters. Greenberg isn't like that, partly because Stiller's miserable antihero is sinking in existential quicksand whose origins only become clear as the film nears its ending. But after two films of literate, depressive East Coast characters, the L.A.-fused malaise of Greenberg isn't just a diverting change of pace but also entirely appropriate for the film's sun-splashed locale. The storytelling may not always be sharp enough, but Baumbach's vision of a Los Angeles where people with dreams slowly age into bland irrelevance is spot-on. No wonder few people I know out here seem to like it.
Consumables is a regular overview of popular culture.