The easiest path to great comedy is to pair a straight man with a wild man. The straight man doesn’t have to play it all that straight: He should be a comedian in his own right, quick with japes and punch lines, with a hint of secret craziness dancing somewhere in his eyes. The wild man’s wildness can be tempered by the occasional note of normalcy: He should be uproariously funny, but he doesn’t have to be a freak. But the basic duality is important. The straight man gives the viewer a surrogate, someone to identify with no matter how outlandish the situation gets; the wild man gives the audience hilarity, and plenty of it.
There are many variations on this formula, of course. You can have multiple straight men and a single crazy clown: The magnificent Animal House, in which John Belushi’s Blutarsky makes his misbehaving fraternity brothers look entirely normal by comparison, is the archetypal case, and last year’s The Hangover repeated the formula, with Zach Galifianakis out-bizarroing Belushi. You can have a single play-it-straight hero with a cluster of lunatic friends: Think of Jerry Seinfeld raising an eyebrow at his co-stars in Seinfeld, or Luke Wilson doing double-takes at Vince Vaughn and Will Ferrell in Old School. And you can even have a movie that’s all wild men, so long as it’s clearly set in a slightly different universe from our own: the male-modeling manscape of Zoolander, the over-the-top Hollywoodland of Tropic Thunder, or the local newstopia of Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy.
But there are two things you shouldn’t ever do: cast a wild man as your straight man, and have your straight men take up way too much screen time, with the wild men shunted into cameos.
Recent examples of the first mistake include Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story, which miscast Vince Vaughn, a prototypical wild man, as the most normal character in the movie, and Forgetting Sarah Marshall, which made the same mistake with the Vaughn-esque Jason Segel. (Last year’s I Love You, Man, by contrast, used Segel’s hammy gifts much more successfully.)
For an example of the second kind of blunder, meanwhile, look no further than your local cinema, where Steve Carell and Tina Fey are headlining in Date Night.
It may sound strange to describe Carell and Fey as straight men (or women). Certainly there are gonzo elements to Carell’s turn as the blundering, foot-in-mouth boss on television’s The Office, and Fey’s famous Sarah Palin impression was as over-the-top, in its way, as anything in Will Ferrell’s oeuvre. But both of them are best when working in a lower key. Carell burns brightest when he burns slow: In his finest comedy, The 40 Year Old Virgin, the whole conceit is that his middle-aged ingenue is actually more stable and psychologically healthy than his lothario pals. Similarly, Fey’s usual persona finds humor in neurosis and self-deprecation, minute gestures and dry asides: From Saturday Night Live to 30 Rock, she’s typically the cool center around which the wilder comedy revolves.
Both of them excel, then, at what Date Night asks them to do, which is to play Phil and Claire Foster, a married, stable, slightly boring accountant-and-realtor couple from New Jersey who wander into a mistaken-identity disaster when they venture into the Big Apple for a dinner date. Denied a table at a fancy Manhattan seafood place, they impulsively swipe a reservation belonging to a no-show couple, the Tripplehorns. Alas, the no-shows turn out to be pair of thieving lovebirds on the run from mobsters and corrupt cops, and before their main course arrives, the Fosters are hustled out of the restaurant by armed thugs.
So begins an unlikely odyssey through the New York underworld, in which Fey and Carell encounter a series of entertaining caricatures — including Mark Wahlberg as a perpetually shirtless black-ops expert, William Fichtner as a polymorphously perverse district attorney, and James Franco and Mila Kunis as the mysterious Tripplehorns, among others. Whenever these supporting players come on screen, the movie livens up considerably. But they aren’t on screen enough, and their wild-man cameos are no substitute for the consistent thread of hilarity that a wild leading man (or woman) would have supplied.
Again, it’s not that Fey and Carell are bad. Far from it: They have a nice chemistry and a knack for repartee, and as the plot progresses, they find opportunities to cut loose and have a little fun with the middling material. But the movie is vastly, vastly better when their bizarro foils show up; when the straight-arrow Fosters are alone, which happens far too often, it turns mild, plodding, and inert.
As Date Night neared its overplotted conclusion, I kept thinking about how successfully Fey played off the more antic Amy Poehler on SNL, and the easy chemistry that Carell enjoyed with Seth Rogen’s bearded wild man in The 40 Year Old Virgin. Then I imagined a world in which the producers of this innocuous comedy realized that they were playing it too straight, and quickly rewrote their script, called up Poehler and Rogen, and gave us a comedy worth seeing: Double Date Night.