Date Night – A So So Comedy Thriller

Date Night is a so-so comedy thriller. For those wishing to master the screenwriting craft that’s a good thing, because you can often learn the most from a movie that isn’t too good or too bad. Its strengths and its flaws are easier to see.

With stars Steve Carrel and Tina Fey it’s hard to avoid comparing the film to The Office and 30 Rock. That just gives us another instance of the truism that the best writing in comedy is in television, not film. But the brilliance of those shows is actually more difficult to explain. With Date Night, techniques and choices, successes and failures, are clear.

The biggest challenge when you write a comedy screenplay is setting up the comic structure, what I call the “clothesline,” on which you will hang the jokes. This clothesline is essential in sitcoms too, but it is much harder to create in a movie because it has to stretch for at least 90 minutes, not 22.

You create the clothesline using two major structural elements, the comedy sub-genre and your hero’s desire line. This is where most comedy writers go wrong. They don’t realize that there are seven major comedy sub-genres, including romantic comedy and farce, and each has a completely different set of story beats you have to hit to tell the story well (see the Comedy Class for the beats in all 7 sub-genres).

In Date Night, writer Josh Klausner uses the comedy thriller form (a kind of action comedy), which goes back at least to the early Hitchcock films. Here we have the innocent couple on the run, forced to battle criminals or spies. This form is not used much nowadays because combining comedy with thriller creates real problems of tone. If the opponent is too deadly the jokes aren’t funny. There’s also a number of contrivances you have to explain away, most notably how two average shmos could possibly compete with, much less defeat, hardened criminals, and why don’t they just go to the police.

The Date Night script gets barely passing grades in these basic areas of storytelling. The unbelievability of Steve and Tina going up against professional killers is always present. But this isn’t a fatal problem because the audience just falls back on the fact that this is a comedy.

The advantage of using the comedy thriller sub-genre is that it gives the script a strong desire line that extends to the end of the story. Much like the detective line in The Hangover, this couple’s desire to escape attack and find the incriminating flash drive creates a strong narrative drive on which the writer can hang any number of funny but episodic scenes. It also allows him to save the funniest scene for last, which is one of the gold standards in a comedy movie and almost never happens.

As a comedy writer, your goal is always to make the comedy build. The laughs should stand on the waves of the laughs that come before until the audience is gasping for breath. That rarely happens in a movie comedy because you have to extend the story for 90+ minutes and because you have to tie up all the story business as you get to the end of the line.

Klausner solves this problem in Date Night, first by setting up the thriller line and second by keeping the final battle simple. Without a last omplex action scene to divert the audience from the jokes, Klausner can keep the focus on two top comic performers doing an incompetent pole dancing routine that brings the house down.

With the strong if hokey clothesline, the strength of the movie can come through, which are the funny bits that pop up throughout the story. Lines like “He turned the gun sideways; it’s a kill shot,” gags like the painfully slow motor boat and scenes like the marital spat between the Tripplehorns are laugh-out-loud funny. In Hollywood, the rule is if you have three laugh-out-loud moments in the film you have a hit. That’s a low bar for movies as opposed to television, but the important thing for writers to focus on is how you get those laughs. And that comes from the comic structure that supports the gags.

If setting up the clothesline is one of the big strengths of Date Night, the attempt to make the comedy come from character is one of the big weaknesses. Most writers have heard how valuable it is for the comedy to come from character, but few really know what it means, or how to do it. I discuss this a lot in the Comedy Class, because if you can master this set of techniques you immediately become one of the top comedy writers in the business. Let me focus on one technique in this area.

You must begin the story by establishing a deep weakness/need in the main character – in this case a couple – which then will be solved by the story line. In other words, the hero’s weakness must be embedded and solved all the way back at the premise line. The premise is your story stated in a single sentence. The Date Night premise might be described like this: a couple whose marriage has become predictable defeats criminals and renews their love.

The premise is like the hypothesis in a science experiment. It’s the fundamental truth about the world you are trying to establish. In an experiment you may determine that your hypothesis is wrong. But in a story you have to prove the premise. The sequence of story events must display in detail the truth about life you describe in one line. This is also called fulfilling the “promise of the premise,” the promise you make to the audience when they agree to come to the theater to see this story.

Klausner clearly wants to tell a story that proves the premise because he spends a great deal of time at the beginning showing that this couple’s marriage has grown stale from the demands of work and children. Even their date night hits the same old routine. The thriller structure is supposed to be the vehicle of renewal. It’s the same technique used, correctly, in Rear Window, where the Jimmy Stewart character learns to respect and commit to the Grace Kelly character by solving a crime with her.

But while this process is given lip service here, it never actually happens. Sure, escaping killers and bringing them to justice makes for an exciting night and a fun makeout session on the lawn the next morning. But it has nothing to do with changing what’s wrong between these two and how they will act differently toward one another for a 1001 nights in the future.

Klausner is definitely doing some things right here that most comedy screenwriters, even those with films under their belts, are not doing. He’s not reaching the level of the sitcoms in which these stars normally appear, but those sitcoms don’t have to tell a funny story over 90 minutes. Still, I can’t help feeling disappointed with this film. When a writer knows how to create comedy from character, you get great thematic comedies like Groundhog Day that express recognizable truths at the same time they make you laugh. Date Night is simply not in that league.

Racing at the Movies

Fans of action films love chase scenes, because they generally pack a ton of adrenaline and help make a movie more tense and exciting. Cars have also been used extensively in films as a status symbol. Other films show car racing instead of chases, with several having a plot that is centered on racing and nothing else.

The top-grossing film where racing is a central theme is “Cars,” which would spawn the sequel “Cars 2” because of its great success. The film stars the voices of Owen Wilson and Larry the Cable Guy as Lightning McQueen and Mater, who suffer several setbacks on the way to California. They need to get to Los Angeles in order to race in the finals to win the coveted Piston Cup, but must escape the town of Radiator Springs, where they are stuck. The film also stars the voice of Paul Newman, in one of his final screen roles before his death.

In the non-animated category, “Days of Thunder” is arguably one of the most popular racing films. It was released in 1990 and starred Tom Cruise, who met his future wife Nicole Kidman on the film. The film was an emotional drama made at the height of Cruise’s popularity, so it was naturally a hit at the box office. Though there was talk of a sequel, Cruise’s busy schedule and impending wedding to Kidman made a second film impossible, since executives did not want to recast Cruise’s role.

In 2001, a small film called “The Fast and the Furious” was released without a ton of fanfare. It starred then-unknowns like Paul Walker, Vin Diesel, and Michelle Rodriguez in a story about a group of street racers who have a system for hijacking tractor trailers for money. They sell the goods for cash, which allows them to continue modifying their cars with expensive parts for racing. Walker plays an undercover cop who tries to infiltrate the ring and finds himself begrudgingly respecting the leader of the group and falling in love with his sister. It spawned the sequels “2 Fast 2 Furious,” “The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift,” and “Fast and Furious.” All of these films rank in the top eleven all-time top-grossing films about racing.

When MTV started airing episodes of the cult Japanese anime hit “Speed Racer,” it introduced the series to a whole new audience. Those new fans demanded merchandise and were elated when the Wachowski brothers, the duo behind “The Matrix” trilogy, announced plans to make a live-action version of the series. Released in 2008, the film boasted an all-star cast that included Emile Hirsch, John Goodman, Susan Sarandon, and Matthew Fox, who had just become famous due to the success of “Lost.”

The top racing films of all time are mostly dramatic, though a few, like “Cars,” are comedies as well. Few of the entries are outright comedies like “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.” Starring Will Ferrell as Ricky Bobby and comedy veteran John C. Reilly, it would become a box office smash hit that continued Ferrell’s reign as the king of movie comedies. The film is a send up of NASCAR and racing culture that is full of sight gags and physical comedy, which are both areas where Ferrell excels.

Another unabashed comedy is “The Cannonball Run,” which is the oldest of the top-grossing racing films, having been released in 1981. It starred Burt Reynolds, Sammy Davis, Jr., Farrah Fawcett, and Jackie Chan in one of his earliest and smallest roles. The story is about an illegal car race that sends several groups of car drivers across the country in a bid to win. Along the way, the racers will go out of their way to sabotage their fellow competitors in order to gain an edge on the pack. It is irreverent fun that would launch “Cannonball Run II” three years later.

Occasionally, a racing film has no script because it is a documentary that focuses on real-life drivers and racers rather than fictional ones. Such is the case with “NASCAR 3D: The IMAX Experience,” which used the huge screens in IMAX theaters in order to really capture the pulse-pounding action on a real race track. The 3D technology only enhances the action, which could very well make this the most daring and thrilling of all the top racing films. It may not have a love story or a plot, but it is just as entertaining as any of the other top racing films of all time.

How To Write A Comedy Movie Script

Learning how to write a comedy movie script is a serious business. Making others laugh is tricky since what appears to be funny to some may seem quite boring to others. As a genre of movies, comedies have always been very popular. Some of the earliest silent films were comedies. Usually such movies revolve around a few characters who engage in humorous actions or dialogues. Comic films do have a story but greater focus is on depiction of funny performers. The lighthearted amusement has universal appeal, irrespective of gender or age. Therefore, it is important to have greater clarity about how to write a comedy movie script before venturing into the arena. Comedy can be introduced in films through visuals that send viewers rolling down the aisles.

* To be truly successful, read as many comedy scripts as possible, taking note of the story, the stars, their dialogues, antics and actions. See how the element of hilarity was introduced and intertwined with the other aspects of the film.

* Choose the type of humor you want to write about. This could be a satire, black comedy, parody, anarchic or romantic comedy or of a hybrid genre.

* Do not try to copy others’ jokes. Just understand their style of witticism. Writing a comedy movie script needs imagination and intuition. How to write a comedy movie script will no longer seem difficult once you choose a mentor to inspire you.

* Think up of jokes of your own. Anything absurd that you experienced will do. Keep making notes so that you do not forget as you set forth.

* As you write make sure that the jokes blend well with the dialogues and the story and do not stand out as separate entities. Delivery of jokes at appropriate moments is vital to send the viewers into peels of laughter.

* Balance the jesting with the contents but both must complement one another. This is a good way to master how to write a comedy movie script.

* Avoid watching a comic movie while you are crafting your own script since the movie may influence your work. It is quite possible that you borrow its ideas or some of its jokes may be reflected in your script, making your writing sound fake.

How to write a comedy movie script is not a difficult task if you understand the art of comedy screenwriting. Some people have an innate sense of comedy and storytelling, but that is not to say it cannot be learned and honed. Most importantly — revise, revise, revise.