Thursday, 26 August 2010

Did you ever wonder what a film would look like if it showed the way suburban cynicism bumped up against urban sleaze? It wouldn't take the form of savage expressions of disbelief from an ordinary, aspirational and law-abiding couple sitting around the breakfast table of a morning and reading about the latest examples of inner-city crime and governmental corruption in the New York Post. No. If you really wanted to explore how the 'burbs related to the other place - the place where high-rise apartments are nestled among high-end bars and other places of entertainment - you would turn your friendly neighbours into James Bond and Mata Hari.

To give Date Night (dir Shawn Levy, 2010) credit where it's due, I did reach the end of the film. That's actually not trivial.

Steve Carell plays Phil Foster, an accountant, alongside Tina Fey as real-estate agent Claire Foster. They're run-of-the-mill thirty-somethings with two kids, a mortgage, jobs that pay the bills, and a flagging relationship where sex has become an optional extra amid the unending grind of modern living. Their usual dinner-out schtick is to eye off couples at nearby tables and report to each other in hushed tones what they think is the real situation there. But on this night, after taking another couple's booking at an upscale restaurant ("Claw, you're welcome," is the telephone greeting by its uber-snooty front staff, who are very funny) they are approached by a pair of goons who want to talk about "Mr Mileto"'s missing flash drive.

It's an unlikely scenario for two people of their ilk but the are drawn into the mayhem despite their incredulity and protestations of innocence. Claire doesn't even know what a 'flash drive' is - "You mean the computer sticky thing?" she asks disbelievingly.

Particularly fun in the film is Holbrooke Grant, a buff, shirtless bravo who runs special ops internationally and lives in a sleek loft apartment in central Manhattan. Claire knows him because she showed him some properties once. They visit him because they need to know the real identity of the Triplehorns, the couple whose table booking they snaffled.

Meanwhile, the cops are on their trail. It turns out that the two goons are, also, cops - bent ones on the payroll of corrupt district attorney Frank Crenshaw. The Fosters make a rapid escape in Holbrooke's white Audi convertible, a car they proceed to trash in an unlikely chase through the crowded streets of New York's heavily-populated island centre. Two cars locked by their front bumper-bars tooling along at high speed through the streets of downtown? Yes, it's unlikely. But it fits with the general goofiness of the plot, which also finds the Fosters fronting up to an exclusive strip club posing as workers, not customers.

They know that Crenshaw is inside and they want to talk with him, get the goons off their case, and return home to their two adorable munchkins so they can pay the babysitter and get on with their weekend.

It's all a whole lot of fun and Carell and Fey are excellent as the disbelieving duo from New Jersey who suddenly find themselves involved in some particularly nasty municipal dealings. Lives are never at risk but there are moral and political issues at play here which are worth exploring. The relationship of the outer suburbs to the grimy centre is one of distrust and fear in a lot of cities in the developed world. This film takes all the cliches - drawing them haphazard from film and other popular culture products - and injects a heavy dose of unreality so that the suburban world view comes out firmly on top.

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