Like many a modern romantic comedy, JJ Shpall’s Date Nite starts with a young man looking for a match on a dating app and finding no luck. Jon works in a dead-end cubicle work-environment, a call-center that, ironically, provides comfort for lonely people by selling them a dubious technological solution. Unlike the characters that inhabit most modern romantic comedies though, Jon lives in a world where desire and human contact are prohibited due to a mysterious, unexplained sickness that produces hilariously gruesome outcomes. That certainly ups the stakes! When Jon finally matches Maya, he has to ask himself if a shot at intimacy is worth defying the law and endangering himself—to say nothing of jeopardizing his prospective date.
The film is a tightrope of tone. It evokes dystopian visions past, yet, in keeping with its whimsical, romantic yearnings, also never takes itself too seriously. Grittier precedents are evoked via sterile office environments and the monochromatic palette of green and blue, but are softened by a fashionable retro-kitsch. A dash of color is inserted into Jon’s life wth Maya, both literally and figuratively, and that also helps the film from becoming too somber, as do the contributions of the film’s cast, which is populated by semi-known faces from TV sitcoms, and who infuse this dark comedy with their subtly awkward comedic mannerisms.
Josh Brener (Silicon Valley, Maron) plays the lovelorn schmuck Jon, a loser you root for even as things turn grotesquely sour. His counterpart, Lauren Lapkus (The Big Bang Theory, Orange Is the New Black) gives the role of the slightly out-of-his-league love interest the necessary depth as a three-dimensional character in her own right. The film is personably cast right up to the supporting actors, with Cleo King (Mike & Molly) and Larry Hankin (who I’ll always remember as Monica and Rachel’s weird downstairs neighbor Mr. Heckles from the first two seasons of Friends) rounding out the ensemble.
“You are not alone in your aloneness.”
As much as connections to our current reality are unavoidable, it is worth noting that Date Nite was conceived, made, and even selected for S/W long before COVID-19 emerged. Rather than an attempt at topicality, the premise of the story has more to do with one of the most ancient motivations for artists to create—heartbreak. Writer/director JJ Shpall elaborates on the personal inspirations for his film:
“Hypothetically, let’s say I was heartbroken last year. Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that I vowed to never hurt so much again. I began asking rhetorical questions like, “Wouldn’t it be nice to live in a world where love didn’t exist?” And when that wasn’t enough, I wondered what it’d be like to make that question literal.”
Of course, as the film makes its online debut today, it isn’t sensible to ignore the parallels that Date Nite‘s narrative has to the larger context of the world. As filmmaker Shpall himself explains:
“What I could not have seen coming was how the real world would so suddenly mirror the film’s dating apocalypse. When we shot it, we wanted to create a sense of physical and emotional distance to reflect the challenges of forging relationships in a digital age. A few months later, there’s now a term for that: social distancing.”
In the midst of fear and suffering, it feels banal to talk about love and dating in the age of coronavirus, but, just for argument’s sake, let us imagine what it will mean for people looking for a partner, to go on a date while constantly dealing with the lingering suspicion that the moment you bring yourself closer to someone, it might actually be dangerous. What will flirting or a first kiss look like if you’re forced to wear a face mask in public at all times?
“How much of yourself are you willing to sacrifice to find your better half?”
To pull back from the topical angle however, one recognizes the timelessness of the film’s message. On an emotional level, you always risk getting hurt when you entrust yourself to somebody. This train of thought is where Date Nite gains its universal power and message, apart from its connection to the current crisis. At the risk of sounding like every love song ever written, it is true that falling in love can eventually break your heart. But it can also elevate us to higher places impossible without it. That’s the tradeoff inherent giving yourself over to another person: high risk, high reward. Naturally, you can always choose to stay alone, but billions of humans throughout history have decided the gamble is worth it.
Although Date Nite takes this conventional wisdom quite literally, it doesn’t diminish the truth that there is always something you have to give up in a relationship. Is it worth it? That is something for every individual to decide, but I side with Jon—sometimes Love might even cost you a leg, but it beats eating dinner alone for the rest of your life.
Whatever the outcome of our present situation, whether or not we return to “normalcy” after a period of time, Date Nite has clearly struck a nerve. In fact, JJ Shapll and his team are currently developing a feature version, with the short serving as a proof-of-concept: “My writing partner Eric Brewster and I were touching up the feature script when life started imitating art. For better or worse, we think the dystopian rom-com’s time has come.“