It can’t be bought or taught but is worth millions to the movie industry. You can have the two biggest stars of the moment, a dazzling script and huge budget but without it a film will flop. Hollywood’s most sought-after commodity? Chemistry.
It comes in different forms but when you’ve got it, you know it. Whether romantic, bro-mantic or comic – the main players in the best films share a connection that is hard to explain. In many cases it makes an average plot unforgettable, an amusing script hilarious or a cliched romance electrifying. Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman’s smouldering scenes makes Casablanca cinema’s greatest love story while Mel Gibson and Danny Glover give Lethal Weapon a partnering like few others.
Well known names you would expect to hit it off don’t always just by default – but when they do, like the two leads of new couple comedy Date Night, it’s something quite magical.
“No-one ever got a great comedy from being rigid and tight, so it was a very fluid set, a very collaborative process which forced me to go through all the versions and cherry pick the funniest bits,” explains director Shawn Levy. “After numerous straight takes we encouraged Tina and Steve to contribute and add improvised lines as they went along.”
Best known for mainstream slapstick capers like the Night At The Museum films and Cheaper By The Dozen, Levy was well aware of his leads’ talents and the fact that comedic chemistry can not be forced.
“I wanted it to feel very grounded and relatable and real. Steve and Tina, in addition to having two of the sharpest comedic minds around today, I just find them always realistic and grounded. They’re funny but not at the expense of naturalism,” he told us at London’s Claridge’s Hotel.
Tina Fey is one of American television’s funniest women. After writing the much-loved Mean Girls she turned her experience as Saturday Night Live’s head writer into the award-winning sitcom 30 Rock. Her SNL Sarah Palin parody was a internet phenomenon getting nearly 6 million hits in it’s first few days online.
Steve Carell, following his ever-quotable turn as simpleton weatherman Brick Tamland in Anchorman, rose to prominence in comedy features like The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Little Miss Sunshine and Evan Almighty. Now best known as Michael Scott in the US version of The Office he has replaced Will Ferrell as comedy’s sure-fire crowd pleaser.
They share such a natural rapport it’s a surprise to learn that Date Night is the first time they have worked together. Steve Carell said: “We came from the same improv’ theatre in Chicago, Second City. I worked there a few years before Tina did and we had met each other on several occassions but we definitely did not know each other well.”
“This is the first time we worked together. And now we are nemeses!” added Fey.
Sadly for every rom-com success story, there are at least a dozen partnerships which would make Neo & Trinity look plausible. Take 2009’s Did You Hear About The Morgans? There’s clearly no connection, comedic or otherwise between big names Sarah Jessica Parker and Hugh Grant so the humour never arrives. The PR team for this year’s Bounty Hunter tried desperately to ignite rumours of an off-screen romance between Gerard Butler and Jennifer Aniston but audiences weren’t fooled when they saw a complete lack of passion at the cinema.
Date Night too would be a mediocre movie without the comedic spark between it’s leads. The plot is overblown, the script is clunky, but when Fey and Carell are given room to move it’s nothing less than hilarious.
One of the film’s most memorable scenes comes when the Fosters must pretend to be erotic dancers and perform on stage. With one or the other it would not trigger as many laughs as it does. Fey and Carell simply click as an ordinary couple way out of their comfort zone. Carell said: “It was fun because we were improvising and clearly we didnt know what the hell we were doing.”
Another comes when the Fosters meet the couple that they have been mistaken for played by James Franco and Mila Kunis. Their interplay provides more killer lines then the scriptwriter could ever dream of.
Of one of his favourite scenes Carell said: “When someone turns to you and says ‘zip your vagina’, which is an improvised line, you just have to go with it. That is a great gift to give another improviser to say something like that.”
A grateful Shawn Levy agreed: “That scene was like a clinic on the benefits of improv’. It triggered an entire day and a half of a scene that became very like double tennis where you have four people just batting around new ideas.”
Date Night is made on the magic between its two leads. Fey and Carell’s harmony of humour makes the Fosters believable and loveable and whether by accident or design Levy has happened upon Hollywood’s holy grail – chemistry. Sadly an overcomplex plot and sloppy script dilute their undeniable rapport which is still strong enough to shine through. Here’s hoping a better vehicle will come along to carry their spark much further, it would be a crime to waste it.