The Story: A boring New Jersey married couple decide to head across the river to big bad Manhattan for a “date night”. When they get denied a table at a hip restaurant, they claim another couple’s reservation, but it turns out the people whose names they borrowed are wanted dead by the cops, the mob, and half of New York. To survive the night, they have to bluff their way out of several hairy situations and ultimately expose a huge conspiracy.
Why This One: This movie got pretty good reviews, but I haven’t seen it on any other year-end best lists. Why did I like it more than most others did? Partly because this was the only movie I enjoyed in the theater for the entire first two-thirds of the year, and for that I’m still grateful. What I admired most about was its elegant structure, which helped me look past its sometimes-clunky execution. Of course, a big part of the appeal for me was just old-fashioned star power. I already adored Fey and Carrell going in, so all they had to do was deliver on those good feelings, which they did in spades. These are simply two extremely talented and likable comics.
The Rules It Drove Home:
- Every scene does more than one thing, on more than one level. The cleverly put-together story allows every scene to be a plot-scene and a character-scene and a theme-scene, so the movie rarely has to stop to change gears or shift in tone. In order to save their lives, this couple must unravel a mystery, but the only way to do that is to adopt new identities that break them out of their ennui and force them to inadvertently reveal long-held secrets to each other. Also, every step of the way, they end up confronting other bizarre couples who are mixed up in this, each one of whom is an extreme example of either what they wish they were or what they’re afraid they’ll become.
- Thrillers are nutty, but a well-written comic-thriller is one that hides its mechanics smoothly. The audience is watching a story about a boring couple who are forced to confront their stagnation through an outlandish adventure in the big city. What the audience doesn’t see is the conniptions the writers go through trying to keep the couple from just leaving town and letting someone else sort it out. The screenwriters find lots of elegant ways to preclude that possibility. A big part of that is to make sure that they can’t trust the cops, so that the ball always stays in their court.
- And of course, if the cops are in on the crime, then you don’t have to contrive to break any cell phones, because a cell phone wouldn’t solve the problem anyway. These two unlikely heroes are the only ones who can solve this problem, right up until the very end.