Did you catch Hitchcock in Date Night?

by on April 13, 2010

in Film analysis, Story structure

Steve Carell and Tina Fey have a threesome with Alfred Hitchcock in Date Night

While the dearly departed Alfred Hitchcock didn’t perform one of his famous cameos in Shawn Levy’s Date Night, the master’s fingerprints were all over the Steve Carell-Tina Fey comedy.

Carell gets the call – just like Carey

In Hitchcock’s North By Northwest, Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) hails the bellboy in the Plaza Hotel, just as the bellboy is calling for a Mr George Kaplan. The bad guys mistakenly assume this suave advertising executive is their target, George Kaplan, and the film has its call to action. Something very similar happens in Date Night.

The Fosters (Carell and Fey) have gone to one of NY’s hippest restaurants on one of their rare forays into Manhattan and wait in the bar with absolutely no chance of getting a table – until the table bitch’s calls for “The Tripplehorns” go unanswered. Carell sticks up his paw, the baddies think this homely Jersey couple are the extortionist Tripplehorns, and the Fosters’ night out goes south – by north-west.

The MacGuffin (flash) drives the plot

The other clear Hitchcockian influence is in Date Night’s MacGuffin.

Hitchcock might not have coined the term, “MacGuffin”, but he certainly popularised it. He explained this incredibly useful plot device this way in a lecture at Columbia University in 1939:

“(The MacGuffin) … is the mechanical element that usually crops up in any story. In crook stories it is almost always the necklace and in spy stories it is most always the papers”

In Hitchcock’s own Psycho, the MacGuffin was the stolen $40,000. In Curtiz’s Casablanca, it was the letters of transit. In Raiders, it is the Lost Ark of the Covenant. In The Hangover, it’s Doug, the missing groom. And in Date Night, it’s the flash drive – containing photos of the District Attorney flashing.

A flash drive might not have the mystique of the Ark, the Fountain of Youth or the Holy Grail, but it serves the writer, Josh Klausner, and the audience perfectly well.

The Hitchcock influence peters out

Alas, from there, the story isn’t handled in a way that would have pleased Hitchcock.

Carell and Fey are great individually – particularly 30 Rock’s creator – but their characters aren’t sufficiently flawed and they get on far too well for the story to offer much of a journey for them as a couple.

How can Tina Fey improve the relationship? Trust Steve Carell to take more responsibility around the home? Firstly, we don’t see any evidence of Steve not making a contribution in what looks like a pretty peach home life and secondly, that just doesn’t represent character growth in any meaningful way – and by that I mean in a way that will deliver any emotional impact on the audience.

Another major story flaw is to have them rescued by a police helicopter at the film’s climax. Yeah, Steve Carell organised the rescue but it’s just too easy and it contravenes one of the most basic tenets of screenwriting – the heroes must be the agents of their own salvation in the final act.

I enjoyed the film and it made for a nice date night. But the absence of a genuine emotional spine means it’s not going to leave any lasting impression. Still, it was nice to be reminded, in those brief flashes, of one of the greatest cinematic storytellers of all time.

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