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Noah Forrest

By Noah Forrest

Date Night: How to Make Funny People Unfunny

Comedy is subjective. What one person finds hilarious might leave someone else cold. So, when people tell me that they think certain comedians or films are funny and I don’t agree, I don’t really see the point in arguing. You will never be able to convince someone of what is funny; you either feel it or you don’t.

I happen to think Steve Carell and Tina Fey are two of the funniest people on the planet right now and a lot of people seem to agree with me on that point. I’m sure they have their detractors, people who don’t really respond to their self-deprecating deadpan humor, but a large portion of the population enjoys their work.

Their new film, Date Night, is objectively not funny.

Now, I know some of you will say, “but Noah, I saw Date Night and had a couple of chuckles, so you’re clearly wrong.” My answer to that is to say that laughing is a mechanism, an instinctual response to a sight, a thought, a smell, etc. When we see two people who have been funny in the past, our reflexes are telling us to laugh at what they do or say if it’s even remotely approaching comedy. And sure, there are parts of Date Night that could elicit that kind of response, but I know that I didn’t even so much as smile once throughout the entire movie.

Back to the objective part of my analysis, though. When you sign up Steve Carell and Tina Fey to star in a film called Date Night, you have a title and two leads that are sure to garner interest. The next step is actually creating a story worthy of these two, something that lives up to the promise held in the title. To make a long story short, here’s what I don’t want when I walk into a movie with these elements: long chase scenes, gunshots, murders, etc. Instead of putting Carell and Fey into 48 Hrs, I’d like to see them in After Hours. To me, that seems like a no-brainer. Of course, if the script was anywhere near as good as 48 Hrs, I wouldn’t be complaining at all.

When it comes to comedy, it’s all about timing and tone. The latter is especially key in a film. We have to understand what the stakes are and how serious they are and then, as an audience, we can become comfortable enough with the tone that we can laugh at what we’re supposed to laugh at. The first fifteen or twenty minutes of the film sets up a tone of a light, relationship comedy, like something Nancy Meyers would direct if the couple had millions more dollars. Then there’s a kidnapping and gunshots fired at our two leads. When you fire a gun in a comedy, it’s very hard to make things funny after that because our heroes have just experienced a very real threat of death. It’s possible to do, as countless movies have done, but only if the tone has been established and the spine of the film can handle it. A tone was established, but not one that can support an element like that.

Another reason the film fails is that our two heroes, played by the funniest people in the film, are the least funny characters in the film. Carell and Fey were hired to essentially play the straight men and then get scenes stolen by the likes of James Franco, Mila Kunis, Mark Wahlberg, William Fichtner, and pretty much anyone else that comes along. I suppose they’re funnier than Leighton Meester, but the point is that why would you hire Carell and Fey to star in a film and then handcuff them by not making their characters inherently funny? Instead, they are the most normal couple ever. That’s the point of the film, that this normal couple has a series of hijinks and misadventures, but I don’t want to see Steve Carell and Tina Fey play a “normal” couple. What I want is for them to be as quirky as possible and then hopefully be half as funny as they are on their respective television shows.

Look, I know that director Shawn Levy doesn’t have the best reputation as a filmmaker and his filmography is littered with middling films that made a ton of money, but I don’t think the blame can be laid solely at his feet. The problems with this film start before he even gets behind the camera. It starts with the fact that this is the wrong project for these two actors and that the script isn’t that great. The writing is credited to Josh Klausner, but I doubt very much that he was the only cook on this one. I’m sure Carell and Fey did a polish and everyone brought in their own writers and I’m sure the end product hardly resembles the original script.

Having said that, just because you have actors that are great at ad-libbing doesn’t mean that you don’t have a funny script to begin with. It’s an issue when you don’t have funny situations to put funny people in and then expect them to come up with something that saves the scene. The film is 88 minutes and there are several dead zones where the film isn’t even trying to be funny. The actors might be trying to jazz it up, but the film isn’t giving them any tools to work with.

I’m not even saying this is a bad film because it’s not. It’s competent enough and short enough and enough things are happening that you’re not going to get bored, but it is a supremely disappointing film because of what it isn’t. I don’t like to judge a film for what it isn’t trying to do, but I don’t think this film even meets its own meager goals that are outlined in the first ten minutes of the film. This is a couple that is stuck in a rut and the idea is that in the course of the next eighty minutes, they will get out of that rut. But, the truth is that while this couple runs around and gets chased and has a few fights, I don’t really see the relationship improving at all.

But the film ends with our happy couple making out and rolling around on the grass outside of their suburban home, so I’m just supposed to say, “aw, cute, yay,” and then walk out with a smile on my face. Instead, I’m left wondering why the hell they’re so in love with each other after this. Carell and Fey have good chemistry with one another as friends, but they never had any tension between them to suggest that these were sexual creatures. And I think both of them are attractive people, but they don’t seem attracted to each other in the movie.

Ultimately, the film does very little right considering the talent they acquired. It’s like drafting Tim Tebow and asking him to be a pocket quarterback. Similarly, Carell and Fey are misused and I’d much rather spend the time re-watching The Office or 30 Rock episodes.

Noah Forrest
April 26, 2010

Noah Forrest is a 26-year-old aspiring writer/filmmaker in New York City.

The opinions expressed in these columns are the writer’s and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Movie City News or any of its editors or other contributors.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon