Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld made a whole lotta money writing a situation comedy that purported to be about nothing. Call me crazy, but I think even Seinfeld was about something, and that something was recognizable human behavior. Even when it’s exaggerated, human behavior is the ticket. That said, two new comedies go head to head. One opened wide after being hyped on every talk show and magazine cover for a month; the other’s opening slowly and with precious little fanfare. One’s much ado about nothing, and the other presents some really big ideas and never leaves its neighborhood. Indie versus Studio. Movie Stars versus Movie Stars. Something versus Nothing. Let the games begin.
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In This Corner
“Date Night.” In case you’ve been abroad somewhere, here’s a little précis for you. Tina Fey and Steve Carell play a square, just-going-through-the-motions married couple from New Jersey who rekindle their hibernating passion and reconnect through a ridiculously impossible adventure in the action-movie wilds of Manhattan. The screenplay features stale feminist outrage, even staler marital insights, gunplay, fish-out-of-water comedy lameness, unconvincing politics, sketchy lowlife criminals, completely bogus (and fully dressed) kinky sex, an insanely large number of wrecked cars, and random property damage of all kinds delivered in a tireless (and tiring) pursuit of laughs and adventure, but it all adds up to considerably less than the sum of its parts.
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In That Corner
Keeping up with “The Joneses” makes for a very dangerous pasttime in this indie comedy-drama with a studio sheen. Movie stars Demi Moore and David Duchovny play titular heads of household and beatific status symbols in a ritzy monied Atlanta suburb where the homes are ginormous and every label counts. But all is not quite what it seems; the glamorous Joneses gradually reveal themselves to be way less and way more than a typical high-achieving family. In their thrall, neighbors Gary Cole and Glenne Headly struggle to maintain, spending their days and nights ogling, coveting, and acquiring all they see next door. The tone shifts frequently, and big laughs and surprise story points are well earned.
Trendy hip comedy icons Tina Fey and Steve Carell do their adlibbing best to save a sinking and witless screenplay that strains all credulity. One wonders what hubris made these Second City veterans think they could save it with a few smutty improvised moments of random dialogue, the strength of their personalities, and our good will. With the exception of “40 Year Old Virgin,” Carell’s choice in film scripts has proved a little iffy, but Fey’s bigscreen track record has been unimpeachable — until now.
I admit I entered the theater with trepidation; the trailer had forewarned me of the awfulness ahead. I’d even flirted with writing this review before going just to see if I’d gotten it right. The trailer failed to capture just how unfunny and graceless and off-key a movie with such talented, likable bright comedy lights can be. It’s a mess, and I’ll spare you the gross story details. You’ve probably gleaned them somewhere else anyway; they’ve been hyping this mysteriously flatlining enterprise everywhere for weeks.
Fey and Carell are joined in this laughless folly by many other bright lights; on-set antics may have been riotous, but the onscreen evidence leaves you wishing you had been on-set instead. James Franco and Mila Kunis play a couple of swindling thugs, and they’re winning enough. When they left the scene, I wished the film had followed them instead. Mark Wahlberg leaves his shirt off in a one- oke action-hero-at-home running gag that left me cold and Fey unaccountably hot.
Kristen Wiig and Mark Ruffalo portray divorcing neighbors, surprisingly unfunny foils for the main characters. The children were cute enough but interchangeably generic and practically mute; they jumped around and generally behaved like children written by someone who doesn’t have any or who never sees the ones he has. These kids were just another tick on their mom’s and dad’s endless (and trite) to-do list; their parents’ dispatching them with a teenaged sitter without any second thoughts given the dangers at hand more than rankled. As an improv coach, one of the biggest lessons I struggled to impart was this: Let every offer land fully and explore it honestly. When someone walks into a scene with a gun, acknowledge it and accept the enormity of that offer. The pinheads in charge of this film never quite learned that lesson. The danger and high stakes came and went, and with it went all semblance of reality and my willingness to care.
“The Joneses” is about something important. I hesitate to explain much more than that, not wanting to spoil your fun. The film hasn’t been hyped, and if you hurry, you just might manage to see it without hearing much about the twists. Suffice it to say it’s super smart, ambitious, and it looks pretty darned good too. The cast is solid, and the ideas are sound. Moore looks absolutely amazing, and Duchovny delivers one of his surest performances ever. Simultaneously confident and vulnerable, they both play middle aged panic beautifully. The younger Joneses are played by fresher faces – the impossibly beautiful and occasionally naked (There. I’ve got your attention.) Amber Heard and heartthrob-in-training Ben Hollingsworth. Picture perfect as can be at first and even second glance, the reality behind the ideal reveals itself slowly and powerfully.
The comedy plays well and so does most of the drama; the ideas deepen and leave you with plenty to think about and talk about. Characters face real obstacles that jeopardize the central relationship of the film; this is no formula romantic comedy. You’re really not sure how it will resolve, whether the principals will wind up together or not remains a mystery until the very last moment. And you’ll care. First time director Derrick Borte does a good job keeping the stakes high without tipping his hand.
Opening weekend was successful, but I doubt word of mouth will treat this top-heavy bundle of nothing too kindly in the coming weeks. Wait for the DVD. Don’t waste a date night on “Date Night.” On the other hand, you’re going to want to see “The Joneses”before your friends and neighbors do. Hurry. Be the first in your neighborhood. (You’ll appreciate the irony later.) And hey. Step away from those spoilers. Just go.