The Feministing Rom Com Review: Date Night

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?

New York, NY

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia. She joined the Feministing team in 2009. Her writing about politics and popular culture has been published in The Atlantic, The Guardian, New York magazine, Reuters, The LA Times and many other outlets in the US, Australia, UK, and France. She makes regular appearances on radio and television in the US and Australia. She has an AB in Sociology from Princeton University and a PhD in Arts and Media from the University of New South Wales. Her academic work focuses on Hollywood romantic comedies; her doctoral thesis was about how the genre depicts gender, sex, and power, and grew out of a series she wrote for Feministing, the Feministing Rom Com Review. Chloe is a Senior Facilitator at The OpEd Project and a Senior Advisor to The Harry Potter Alliance. You can read more of her writing at

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia.

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Join the Conversation

  • Dawn.

    I haven’t seen Date Night but I want to. Tina Fey and Steve Carell are both really funny. I mean, come on. Means Girls and Anchorman. Kickass.
    I was also excited to see James Franco and Mila Kunis in supporting roles. James Franco is one of my favorite actors, thanks to Milk (my favorite movie) and Pineapple Express.
    I didn’t expect Date Night to pass the Bechdel test, and as you note, most mainstream movies don’t. I hope we see at least a couple mainstream flicks that pass it this year. Great review, Chloe.

  • Mollie

    Now I kinda wanna see this movie! (um… when it’s on dvd. $12.50 for a movie ticket? you’re killin’ me, NYC)

  • lovelyliz

    This was seriously a wonderful movie with a great message. Something good to point out is that even though it doesn’t pass the Bechdel test, it’s SO much better than Baby Mama [Yuck] and maybe even Mean Girls, which was briliant.
    I loved this movie.

  • lovelyliz

    I think the below article makes a very good point about Tina Fey, who I personally think is fabulous.

  • borrow_tunnel

    I don’t see how it fails the test. There are more than 2 women and they don’t always talk about men — they talk about the book club and I think stripping?

  • Ms. Junior

    I read the article you linked to, and I thought it was pretty good and mostly agreed. However, I really should stop reading comments to blogs except for Feministing (because most of the time, the comments are pretty good) because the comments to this post made me sad for humanity.
    Back to the movie, I’m pretty sure I’m not going to see it (because it doesn’t interest me) but I’m glad that it had a strong message that marriages (and ALL relationships) should be about communication and mutual respect and have equal roles. So that’s exciting!

  • jrav81

    This sounds really good. I hate “traditional” rom coms. I enjoyed It’s Complicated because it was so different and not everything was wrapped up perfectly.

  • South

    During the course of the movie she talked to the boss cop woman, the stripper/thief woman and very briefly her baby sitter. Also she talked to her friend from the book club, that one involved discussion about men, but not exclusively so.
    This pretty easily passes the Bechdel test.

  • FLT

    Sort of on topic: I remember when Beetlejuice first came out knowing that the couple was going to die in the first five minutes because they were married and liked each other. And you can’t have a happy married couple as the main characters in a movie.

  • sonnybill

    Well, I was not so keen on the insult-to-end-all-insults between men in the movie:
    “Shut. Your. Vagina.”
    I hated that, after seeing what a massive, shocking offence it was to the guy, Claire (Fey) intervened and said timidly “Mouth…. he means your mouth” to ease the tension, as though she concurred that it was indeed a slur.
    Also, can’t remember the specifics but the trivialising way the book club discussion was carried out rubbed me up the wrong way, not to mention Phil’s (Carell) shudder at the mention of menstruation. Thought they could have been a bit cleverer there.

  • Gular

    Given your review of this movie, perhaps it throws into question if the Bechdel test isn’t the best measure of a feminist movie? I mean, by this description, clearly the movie has feminist (both masculine and feminine forms of feminism)thought all through out it. And yet it fails this litmus test?

  • uberhausfrau

    Despite the lovely home and adorable kids, they seem to be an advertisement for staying single.
    havent seen the movie yet, but since they are using the “boring/bored married couple” trope, im going to comment on that. they arent necessarily a advertisement for staying single, but instead showing that it is important for couples to work at their partnership and see each other as a couple, not mama or daddy. all life, not just partnered life, has its ebbs and flows and stretches of monotony and excitement.
    or maybe im just being overly sensitive because ive been partnered for almost 8 years, have the two kids and the sex has never been better.

  • Rahula

    OK, so I’m (relatively) new to the Feministing community and the Bechdel test, but Chloe, you say the beginning of the film features a book club with mostly women discussing a book about an Afghan girl. Do none of them speak to each other in that scene or does it not count for some reason in the Bechdel test (perhaps because none of the non-Fey women are main characters)?
    Not trying to be a semantic nitpicker, just trying to clarify a rule I learned about only recently.
    Also, is there a corollary to the Bechdel test that mitigates women only talking about men if the men only talk about women? I ask because I’m a fan of “When Harry Met Sally…” and Billy Crystal and Bruno Kirby NEVER talk about anything but women.

  • decleyre!

    the Bechdel test isn’t meant to be an indicator of whether or not the movie is feminist, but whether or not the movie has a significant female presence.

  • Gular

    Either way, the review here and the Bechdel test say two ENTIRELY different things. Especially given the whole concept of showing an egalitarian marriage in this movie.

  • catnmus

    I wish I could find the review I read before I saw the movie. It pointed out about how the movie was purportedly about a married couple, but it’s really about the husband’s dissatisfaction. Some points:
    1. He assumes they’re going to have sex, but she’s just put in her nighttime mouth guard, and then is basically not that into it. So they don’t have sex.
    2. When they take the Tripplehorn’s reservation at the fancy restaurant, there was a definite “you never let me have any fun” vibe.
    3. The “you don’t trust me to do anything” line.
    4. She was all ogling Wahlberg, of course, but he was not really ever ogling Wahlberg’s girlfriend. Really? Seriously? The only one he ogles is his wife.
    Granted, throughout the movie he was very obviously and convincingly portrayed as a modern, egalitarian husband. But these issues above are all global systemic issues in their relationship. Someone please name me three (or even two, or one) instances of HER dissatisfaction in HIM. The only thing I can think of is the fact that he “never ever closes drawers”. That’s a specific, one-off kind of flaw. Does the movie show us anything where he doesn’t listen to her, doesn’t respect her? Heck, he even “over”-participates, with the whole book club thing.
    Net, this is not a movie about a couple, this is a movie about a husband who is not taken completely seriously by his wife, until he can prove his worthiness by rescuing her.
    If anyone knows the review I’m thinking of, can you please post it here. I’d love to go comment on its complete accuracy.