Romantic comedies are usually about people getting together. Against all the odds, despite all the obstacles, after ninety minutes, we know these two people will finally get together and make out as the credits roll, then presumably get married and have lots of babies once we leave the theater and give them some privacy. This is the promise of the rom com: Obstacles will be overcome and love will be triumphant, and two people who started off alone (or with people whom the audience knows are totally wrong for them) will find each other and live happily ever after.
Date Night, starring Steve Carell and Tina Fey, is about a married couple who already found each other and are living happily ever after. They got married and had babies before the camera even started rolling. In this, Date Night joins a spate of recent rom coms that find romance and comedy in something other than courtship and the classic happy ending, most notable among which are Knocked Up and It’s Complicated. The former features a couple that gets together – physically, at least – right at the beginning, and the latter a couple that has already gotten together and done the marriage and babies thing years before we even meet them. Date Night continues the trend of rom coms that acknowledge that in reality, happily ever after is only the beginning.
In Date Night, Carell and Fey play Phil and Claire Foster, a married couple who live in Teaneck, NJ with their two young children. Phil is a tax consultant and Foster a real estate agent, and the first time we see them, they’re being woken up by their kids at some ungodly hour and bracing themselves for another day. Downstairs, we see the telltale signs of an equal partnership marriage, in which the parents discuss how to discipline their daughter when she misbehaves and Phil makes the kids’ lunches for school. We quickly learn that the Fosters are tired – in both senses of the word. They’re exhausted, yes, but they’re also tired of their daily routine, tired of going to the same restaurant and ordering the same food on their weekly night out together. They’re too tired for sex, and tired of having the same old boring sex when they find the energy to have it. Despite the lovely home and adorable kids, they seem to be an advertisement for staying single (which is ironic, given that the point of most rom coms is finding someone to marry and have kids with).
The Fosters get a wakeup call when a couple in their circle of friends announces that they’re getting a divorce. The couple, played by Mark Ruffalo and the sadly underused Kristen Wiig, reveal to the Fosters that “the spark” is gone. “We’re not even a couple,” says Wiig’s Haley. “We’re like really excellent roommates.” Fearing that their own marriage is headed in the same direction, the Fosters decide, separately, to do something special: Claire puts on a dress and some heels and Phil decides to take her out to dinner in New York City for date, as opposed to their usual local bistro. When they pretend to be another couple in order to get a table at a fancy TriBeCa restaurant, things start to go awry. Soon, their special night out derailed by double-crossing cops, a stolen zip drive, mobsters, blackmail, a corrupt DA, car chases and a secret underground strip club. The Fosters, with the help of one of Claire’s former clients and the NYPD, manage to get all the bad guys arrested, and go back to Teaneck, NJ with their marriage reinvigorated, more in love with each than ever before. Because there are some rom com rules you just aren’t allowed to break.
Date Night does a good job of representing the realities of the dual-career family, and while the phrases are never actually used, the issues and work-life balance and the Supermom dilemma emerge as central problems in the Fosters’ marriage. Claire’s former client, Holbrooke, is a suave international playboy played by an inexplicably and constantly shirtless Mark Wahlberg, and when they pay him a visit to ask for his help, Phil becomes uncomfortable with the sexual tension between Holbrooke and Claire. “When you took one look at him, you lit up like a sparkly sparkler,” he says to her later. “I’m just the husband… Who lights up for the husband?” In the ensuing argument, Claire suggests that perhaps she’d be more likely to “light up” for him if she weren’t so exhausted from running the entire household – cooking the meals, ferrying the kids to soccer, cleaning the house – in addition to working full time. And here’s where Date Night really surprised me: instead of replying that he too works full time, and is just as exhausted as she is, as I expected he would, Phil says, “You know what might make it easier? Me.” He tells Claire that if she just let go a little and trust him take on some domestic responsibilities, instead of insisting that everything has to be done her way (i.e., by her), things might be easier. He asks her to let him to do some of the work of running the household, observing, “You don’t trust me. You set me up to fail before I even have the chance to come through for you.” You know how we’re always saying that work-life balance isn’t just a women’s issue, because it will also provide balance for the men out there who want to be more involved in their families? Phil Foster is one of those men, and one of the first of his kind that I’ve seen on a movie screen in, well, ever.
The movie is clearly a plug for egalitarian marriage – in one scene, one of the corrupt cops tells Claire to “be a good girl and listen to your husband.” “Uh, yeah, be a good girl and listen to me,” repeats Phil, clearly uncomfortable with the “obey” part of “love, honor and obey”. And while marriage is depicted as an exhausting, somewhat disappointing institution, it’s clear that we’re supposed to walk away wanting the kind of relationship that the Fosters have. Early on, we see Phil sitting with Kate and her friends, a man among five women, at a meeting of their book club. They’re reading a book about a young Afghani woman and discussing a passage in which she gets her period for the first time. “You have no idea what it’s like,” one of the woman reprimands him, “to be a young woman having your first period under Taliban rule.” “Neither do you,” he retorts. When one of his friends asks Phil why he belongs to the book club, he replies, “That’s marriage. Sometimes you do stuff you don’t wanna do.” That’s a rule that we see both Phil and Claire following, and those compromises, along with the ability to make each other laugh and genuine love and respect for each other, make for a pretty great relationship, even if the Fosters don’t have nearly as much sex as they’d like to.
Now, I know we’re all feeling a little conflicted about Tina Fey at the moment, but the truth is that she and Carell make this otherwise passable movie highly enjoyable . It’s been said that the script is not great, and it’s not: If the outtakes that play during the closing credits are to be believed, Carell and Fey improvised some of the funniest parts of the movie. They’re highly skilled comedians who clearly enjoy working together, and just as the Foster’s relationship is an equal partnership, with Carell and Fey, neither actor is trying to upstage or outperform the other. That said, like every other movie I’ve reviewed for so far in this series, Date Night fails the Bechdel test, and I’m beginning to realize that mainstream movies that do pass are rather hard to come by. Perhaps I’m so disappointed because Fey’s other two movies – Mean Girls and Baby Mama – passed with such flying colors. But I’m beginning to wonder if 2010 will give any romantic comedies in which women actually talk to each other about something other than a man. Women do it every day in real life. Is that really so much to ask that our movies reflect that reality?