There are three American comedies this week which play with the status anxieties of white, suburban, middle-class, middle-aged couples.
Indeed, if you see all three films within two days, as I did, it's not easy to remember which is which: two of them feature Mila Kunis and Kristen Wiig, two of them spotlight the same high-end sportscar – a good day at the office for whichever product placement executive had that account.
Best of the bunch is Date Night, which pairs up Steve Carell and Tina Fey as a white, suburban, etc couple. Their marriage is a happy one, but it's so focused on their careers and their children that romance has dwindled to a half-asleep meal in a half-asleep steakhouse every Friday. In order to inject some oomph into their relationship, they go to an exclusive Manhattan restaurant, which leads, via a North by Northwest-inspired case of mistaken identity, to their being plonked into the middle of a blackmail scheme.
It's a reasonable fish-out-of-water set-up, so it's a pity that neither the danger they get into, nor the way they get out of it, has much to do with their characters. The screenwriter chucks together the same gangsters and corrupt cops that have been the staple of every action-comedy since the 1980s, and by the time we come to the obligatory tyre-screeching car chase, it's all getting a bit tiresome.
But the entertainment is still efficient enough for Date Night to be recommended for an actual date night. As rote as the thriller plotting may be, the perfectly matched Carell and Fey puncture it skilfully with some sharp jokes about marital familiarity, and about the fact that they're much too square for the adventure they find themselves in. We're 10 minutes into an urgent search for a missing flash drive before Fey admits that she doesn't know what a flash drive is. "In the office, we call it a computer stick thingy!"
In The Joneses, it's the neighbours' marriage that doesn't have the spark it used to – a deficiency which is thrown into relief by living next door to the loved-up Demi Moore and David Duchovny and their two picture-perfect teenagers. But if Moore & Co look as if they've stepped out of a catalogue, well, that's not far from the truth. They aren't a bona fide family at all, but actors paid by a stealth marketing firm to move into an affluent neighbourhood and show off a range of expensive products to the desperate housewives and husbands who live nearby.
It's a terrific concept – so terrific, in fact, that you'll wish the film had explored it further. The writer-director has made a sly commentary on today's ultra-consumerism that's always watchable and often very funny, but it's ultimately content to be a lackadaisical, loosely plotted indie comedy when it could have been either an excoriating satire or a full-on Jim Carrey-ish farce. Even when the film is at its most heightened, you're left with the suspicion that marketing tactics in the real world are much more Machiavellian.
Extract is even mellower. It stars Jason Bateman as a man who's bored both by his work as the owner of a food-flavouring plant, and by his sexless marriage to Kristen Wiig. An enticing young temp, Mila Kunis, looks as if she might provide the excitement his life is missing, especially if Bateman follows the highly questionable advice of his bar-tending buddy, Ben Affleck.
Written and directed by Mike Judge, the creator of King of the Hill and Beavis & Butt-Head, Extract meanders along amiably enough, prompting snorts of laughter here and there. But it's so digressive that it seems as if Judge filmed a pile of sub plots and forgot about the plot that was supposed to go with them.
Nicholas Barber sees The Flight of the Conchords' Jemaine Clement in Gentlemen Broncos, from the director of Napoleon Dynamite
Also Showing: 25/04/2010
Agora (128 mins, 12A)
Agora could well be this year's only Spanish epic about a 4th-century Alexandrian philosopher (Rachel Weisz) whose astronomy studies are threatened by Christian extremists. And maybe that's for the best. Commendable as its intentions may be, it simply has too many plot strands, themes, and European accents to fit into one film. Alejandro Amenábar (The Others, The Sea Inside) should have either edited out half the story or expanded it into an HBO mini-series.
Centurion (97 mins, 15)
Neil Marshall's blood-drenched action movie rips off/pays homage to the chase sequence in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but instead of bank robbers pursued by mercenaries, the heroes are a rag-tag band of Roman soldiers (Michael Fassbender, Liam Cunningham, David Morrissey) being hunted through the forests of Caledonia by Picts. Scissor-happy editing has reduced Centurion to a succession of scenic helicopter shots, interlarded with montages of swords hacking through flesh.
It's a Wonderful Afterlife (100 mins, 12)
Gurinda Chadha's pointless melange of romance, ghosts, and curry-related serial-killing has an unfunny, shambolic and amateurish execution. You cringe for everyone involved.
Cherry Bomb (86 mins, 15)
Turgid Northern Irish teen drama co-starring Rupert "Ron Weasley" Grint as one of two obnoxious friends competing for the same obnoxious girl.