Movies and dates are like flowers and candy. Or flowers and napalm. Or a tuxedo with the zipper down. Or a French poodle with rabies.
Many couples who decide to go on a date decide to go to the movies; it can work out well, especially if one uses some discretion in choosing the film: Porn, 10-hour Holocaust movies and Takeshi Miike's "Audition" - in which a woman goes out with men and then chops them up - probably should be avoided. At the same time, "Audition" makes a very useful point: Many people in the movies go out on dates, and the success rate is abysmal.
That's because dates - first dates especially - are fraught with peril. So much can go wrong, in so many deliciously awkward ways. Whether this will work out to our comedy advantage with "Date Night" - the Tina Fey-Steve Carell feature that opens Friday - remains to be seen. Fey and Carell play a married couple, so they sort of have to go home together at the end of the movie; both stars are reactive comedians, so the humor might well achieve inertia. It's also hard to imagine that whatever goes wrong will be worse than some of the hope-filled romantic collisions cited (in no particular order) below. They may not be the worst dates in movie history, but they're pretty gruesome.
(Note: "Knocked Up" doesn't count, only because bar pickups don't qualify as dates.)
"After Hours" (1985)
You can kind of tell a date isn't going well when one of the participants commits suicide. And that's just one of the many, many bits of insanity that the beleaguered Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne) survives in this very black comedy by Martin Scorsese. Paul, a word processor who lives on the Upper East Side, meets a waitress named Marcy (Rosanna Arquette), gets her number and journeys downtown to see her - '80s Manhattan being less user-friendly than it is today - in the process losing his money, encountering assorted mutants and freakazoids, being accused of burglary, and getting chased by a mob of angry homosexuals.
When the star-crossed Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) and Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) meet in a coffee shop to resolve their romantic impasse, Doctor Octopus shows up and throws a car at them. What follows is a battle that roves all over town, atop buildings and subway trains and involves Mary Jane's abduction by the betentacled Doc Ock (Alfred Molina). Not exactly the way they describe it on eHarmony.
"The Invention of Lying" (2009)
Before their first date is even over, Ricky Gervais gets to listen to Jennifer Garner tell her mother everything that's wrong with him - and why it will never work out, and why they'll never see each other again - in this comedy set in a parallel universe where everyone tells the truth. All the time. Which is certainly not the route to romance.
"The Awful Truth" (1937)
A shiny old chestnut, this rather daring (for its time) tale of adultery stars Cary Grant, Irene Dunne and Ralph Bellamy, who plays a big hick from Oklahoma smitten by the sophisticated Dunne. After Grant's date embarrasses him - by performing a virtual striptease in the nightclub where they all meet - Grant gets paid back in full, as Bellamy drags Dunne around the dance floor while performing a kind of demented square dance.
"Date Movie" (2006)
Where can you possibly begin?
"She's Out of My League" (March)
This movie's a bit too fresh to have achieved classic status, but it has potential: When airport security guy Kirk (Jay Baruchel) brings the gorgeous Molly (Alice Eve) home to meet his baboon-like family, the males drool in unison, the women can't disguise their envy, and Molly's admission that she isn't wearing any underwear almost sets the house on fire. Of course, if love can survive this, it can survive anything.
"Forgetting Sarah Marshall" (2008)
Peter (Jason Segel) thinks he loves the unfaithful Sarah (Kristen Bell), and runs off to Hawaii to forget her - only to find that she and her narcissistic rock-star boyfriend, Aldous Snow (Russell Brand), are at the same resort. When sparks start flying between Peter and hotel clerk Rachel (Mila Kunis), they go out to dinner, only to be thrown together again with Sarah and Aldous in a painful, cringe-inducing meal during which Peter and the women drink heavily, and Aldous tells them at length about his sexual philosophy.
"Must Love Dogs" (2005)
Sometimes, being responsible can be a real drag. So can a prolonged, agonizing trip to where the movie was obviously heading all along. When Sarah (Diane Lane) and Jake (John Cusack) decide to have sex, they don't have any protection. After a not-quite-suspense-ridden trip to several pharmacies, they never quite find any and, besides, they're out of the mood. So are we.
"American Pie" (1999)
Let's see . . . how do we describe this. . . . No, there's no way. Suffice to say that when Jim Levenstein (Jason Biggs) has a study date with Czech exchange student Nadia (Shannon Elizabeth), their entire, shall we say, interaction (including Jim's various malfunctions) gets broadcast to the entire high school via Webcam. A cautionary tale, to be sure. But so are most date movies.
WILL THIS BE A HOT 'DATE'?
The basic concept of "Date Night" - the idea of a couple's having to schedule an evening to keep the romance alive - would seem a bit foreign to the usual target audience for mainstream romantic comedies, which skews younger and responsibility-free.
But not much about this comedy, directed by Shawn Levy (both "Night at the Museum" movies), seems calculated to woo teenagers: Tina Fey is 39, Steve Carell is 47, both star in modestly rated network series, although Fey's "30 Rock" has been a consistent Emmy winner, and Carell's "The Office" has been honored with multiple awards since premiering in 2005 ("30 Rock" came on the next year). Both stars made their name in television - Carell on "The Daily Show" and Fey on "Saturday Night Live," a program whose relationship to the big screen has been a bit like that of mad cow disease to the meat industry. So there's nothing obvious about "Date Night," except perhaps the story line: stolen identities, crazy characters and the couple's renewed belief in what brought them together in the first place. Pass the virtual Kleenex.
What audiences will have to ask themselves is, are these people funny? In the movies, at least, neither Carell nor Fey has much of track record: Carell's "Get Smart" and "Evan Almighty" were comedically calamitous, and while "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" was a riot, it wasn't because of Carell, who has been much more effective in such films as "Dan in Real Life" or, notably, "Little Miss Sunshine."
Fey, for all the deft Sarah Palin impersonations, perpetuates a certain bemusement with the universe and charming self-effacement, but, hey, "Baby Mama" was a bust. Of course, there's always the chance she and Carell will prove there's power in numbers, even if the number is only two.