Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Date Night: Hitchcock by way of 30 Rock and The Office

This past weekend I saw Date Night and found myself with unbidden flashbacks to my undergraduate days, sitting in a film classroom while my professor lectured on one of cinema's greatest minds. Having read some reviews of Date Night, I understand that while many viewers enjoyed it, there were a number of fans who were let down, partly because of the expectations they held for stars Steve Carrell and Tina Fey due to their TV shows.

That's where those viewers went wrong - this isn't 30 Rock or The Office on the big screen. As I sat back and watched the story unfold, I was thinking only one thing: This is pure Hitchcock.

Written by Josh Klausner, Date Night features the two stars as a married couple, the Fosters, that's in something of a rut. They've got two ornery kids who suck up all the time they aren't spending in their careers. Even their "date nights" out are so stale and routine that their friends know the details from memory - down to the dinners they always order. As we see in one bedroom scene, there's not even any room for romance in their relationship. The sex life seems non-existent, but it's not even that big a problem because neither of them has the energy for it anymore. It's clear - this is a marriage that's fallen into a deep slump.

So one weekend they decide to reignite the spark by getting into an exclusive new restaurant, and end up stealing a reservation from an no-show couple named the Tripplehorns. Bad move. It turns out some pretty bad people are looking for our no-shows and they want a stolen flashdrive returned. These thugs hold Steve and Tina at gunpoint in an alley, and our bewildered heroes only narrowly escape. When they go to the police, things only get worse, as it turns out our thugs are actually cops on the take.

This leads the married couple to do the only thing they can think of; find the real Tripplehorns, get back this flashdrive and give it to the bad guys in return for their lives.

This is textbook "innocent man on the run" storytelling, which just so happens to be one of my favorite genres, and there's nobody who did this kind of film better than Alfred Hitchcock. If he could turn on his computer, my film professor would be so proud that I'm using material I gleaned from his class in today's entry.

In his 1989 book Hitchcock’s Films Revisited, film commentator Robin Wood identifies 11 Hitchcock films that could be categorized as being about a wrongly accused man on the run. The formula for these films is simple, and deals with what could be termed a double chase. The hero, who also has to dodge the police in response to some element of the set-up, hunts the real criminals. In these films, the man is always innocent of the crimes he is accused of, but is guilty of some other transgression - often one that precludes him from seeking help from the authorities. The protagonist redeems himself for those crimes through his actions as he escapes his pursuers and exposes the real criminals.

Sound familiar?

Probably my favorite Hitchcock use of this trope is North by Northwest, screenplay by the great Ernest Lehman. In North by Northwest the protagonist is Roger O. Thornhill, played by Cary Grant. Thornhill is mistaken for a spy named George Kaplan by another group of spies. Those spies try to kill him, but he manages to escape and goes to the police. The spies thwart this and the police come away believing Thornhill’s claims are the ravings of a drunk. Even worse, Kaplan is later implicated in a murder that makes front-page news, which serves the purpose of forcing him to evade the police.

At this point, the audience (though not Thornhill) is made aware of part of the truth. There is no George Kaplan; he’s just an invention, a decoy so the spies won’t find the real agent sent by the Intelligence Bureau. The Bureau decides not to help Thornhill, but to take advantage of the fact that he has given the decoy life. Meanwhile, Thornhill boards a train and meets Eve Kendall. Though she helps Thornhill hide from the spies, she is quickly revealed to the audience as working with those men. She arranges for Thornhill to be alone out in the country, where he can be shot from a plane.

Thornhill escapes and realizes he’s been betrayed, catching up to Eve at an auction. This encounter ends with Thornhill in the hands of the authorities, where he learns the truth from the head of the CIA. Eve is actually the agent that the spies are looking for, but her cover is in danger. Thornhill agrees to “play” Kaplan one more time, so that Eve can shoot him (with a gun loaded with blanks) and reestablish her loyalties to the spies. Eventually Eve is discovered and Thornhill rushes to save her in a chase that leads to the faces on Mount Rushmore. By the end of the movie, the bad guys are defeated and Roger and Eve are married.

While the spy plot is somewhat complex, the focus is still on the protagonist's character growth. When Thornhill is introduced, he appears a very shallow character. An advertising executive, he seems to have an exaggerated notion of his own importance, and has two failed marriages. When he gets arrested, Thornhill calls his mother to bail him out. In fact, much of the early part of the film depicts Thornhill trying to convince his mother that his life really is in danger. The constant presence of Mother Thornhill makes Thornhill seem like a “momma’s boy” It is interesting to note that Mrs. Thornhill’s last appearance takes place only moments before Eve is introduced.

If the film is intended to show how Thornhill matures, then it only makes sense that Eve “replaces” Mrs. Thornhill as the primary female in Thornhill’s life. Some Freudian theorists believe that when men look for a woman to marry, they are subconsciously trying to replace their mother. Hitchcock might have intended this as one aspect of Thornhill’s growth, though there is other evidence of his maturation. By the end of the movie, he falls in love with Eve and puts his life at risk several times to save hers. The Thornhill introduced at the start of the picture would never climb the rocks by the lodge and risk his life to save another. Given the choice at the start of the adventure, Thornhill never would have willingly assumed the identity of Kaplan, but he does this by the end.

Despite the complexity of the story, the spy plot is still ultimately a means to an end. The real end game is Thornhill's character growth. The MacGuffin in this story is a strip of microfilm that Eve must keep from falling into the wrong hands. The microfilm is the entire basis for the spy plot, but what it contains or will be used for is of little consequence to the audience. How this affects Roger Thornhill is what gives the film meaning. As the audience sees Thornhill develop as a character, they are drawn into his dilemma. As involving as the spy plot is, it never takes the focus of the film away from Thornhill and the emphasis on character development.

And that's the same sort of structure you can find in Date Night. The whole film is based around the Fosters finding this flashdrive. For most of the movie we don't even know what's on this flashdrive, and you know what? We don't really care. All that matters is that the bad guys want it. And even that is only important because it's all a device to get the Fosters on the run, where they can work through the real issue: the malaise their marriage has fallen into.

This is not a movie about mobsters, crooked cops, dirty politicians and blackmail. This is a film about a couple that has become a prisoner of their own routines, and the story of how they break out of it and rediscover their passion. For the first time in ages, they're out of their comfort zone. Without getting too deep into spoilers, they're thrown into several high adrenaline situations, as well as one that forces Fey's character to dress up like a stripper. This not only reminds Carrell that his wife is a sexual being (God I wish I had a better term for that), but it reminds Fey that she is too.

(So I guess that means that if the sex has gone stale, the key is to get the wife to play stripper? But I digress...)

That's the real climax of the movie - the two of them jumpstarting the old flames. Everything else is just disposing of the loose ends. Actually, it's here that I'd argue the script makes its only real misstep. Without giving too much away, the flashdrive has blackmail material and the reveal of what's on that drive tips off one character to the fact that another character has double-crossed them.

Honestly, that's probably making the film too complicated. Even without the reveal of that extra double-cross, it's still possible to make that disc important and get all the necessary players who are seeking it into that final confrontation. It's an extra little twist that doesn't really affect everything that lead up to it and it absolutely has no impact on the resolution of the Foster's marriage story.

It's not a crippling problem, though. One can still follow the plot and the climax still does what it needs to with regard to tying up the script. I'm just saying that my vote would have been for simplicity. Sure, tell us what's on the disk. Show us why certain major players would want it, but don't try to get me invested in conflict between two characters who have maybe a grand total of ten minutes of screentime between them.

That very minor quibble aside, I rather enjoyed the movie. It might not be what people expected when they heard about the teaming of Michael Scott and Liz Lemon, but it's a fun movie in its own right.

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