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