More concerned with paying homage to ’90s-era Quentin Tarantino than telling a contemporary coming-of-age tale with believable stakes, co-helmers Manuel Crosby and Darren Knapp’s debut feature “First Date” saddles a young couple not with a romantic night out, but with a haphazard all-nighter crime-comedy that’s mostly unfunny and free of convincing suspense. Instead, we get a blood-soaked comedy of errors, full of wisecracking criminals, missed connections and shoot-’em-up set pieces.
Then again, how could the results feel genuine when the whole premise is based on an utterly unrealistic hypothesis? It goes something like this: Middle-class high school student Mike (likable newcomer Tyson Brown) talks cool neighbor Kelsey (Shelby Duclos, elevating an underwritten part) into go out with him. Problem is, he doesn’t have a ride, or much money. Eager to impress, he decides to drop the entirety of his limited funds on a pre-owned car, rather than doing something sensible, like calling an Uber or borrowing a vehicle from a friend.
Pressured by his bestie Brett (Josh Fesler), an overeager motormouth sidekick generically carbon-copied from many an ’80s teen movie, Mike responds to an online sale listing, ending up at the doorstep of smalltime crook Dennis (Scott Noble), who claims to have just sold the car in question. Instead of running for dear life, the helpless kid puzzlingly lets Dennis talk him into buying a different car — this one an overpriced, beat-up ’65 Chrysler that has obviously seen better days.
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Predictably, Mike couldn’t have settled for a shoddier vehicle even if he tried. Except, for some reason, the Chrysler comes packed to the gills with heroin. While Mike drives off, oblivious to the stash, it doesn’t take long for a hefty number of side players — thieves, criminals and cold-blooded murderers — to come after the unlucky kid and the drugs. Following loosely the same playbook as “Date Night,” with some “Dope” mixed in for good measure, what starts off as a romantic pursuit quickly turns into a survival challenge for Mike amid a crowded array of half-baked characters.
There’s a gang who runs a book club on the side, with its members bickering around through quirky, Tarantino- and Coen Brothers-style dialogue that sound desperately stale and second-hand. There’s an over-labored running joke about “Titanic.” A pair of idiosyncratic (and corrupt) cops make a recurring appearance, briefly hinting at a “Superbad”-like turn for “First Date” that never coalesces. Other personalities range from a hysterical, armed cat lady and an old couple who claim to be the previous owners of Mike’s car, asking to take it out for old times’ sake. Unable to say no to anyone despite being hours late already, Mike complies.
Perhaps the most frustrating facet of “First Date, ”other than how little time Mike and Kelsey spend together, is Mike’s ongoing passivity in such situations. Crosby and Knapp go out of their way to establish him as a decent, well-meaning yet shy kid. But their over-insistence on that last character trait robs Mike of a memorable personality. Much of the time, he barely does anything to interrupt the action or steer it in a different direction that would sensibly favor him. As a result, he comes across as an outsider, despite finding himself at the center of all the craziness.
When Mike and Kelsey’s intended date finally arrives, we learn a compelling thing or two about these characters — a long-delayed hint at the kind of movie they could’ve jointly led from the start, had the filmmakers been more focused on them, and less bothered with the uninteresting supporting universe that feels like a forced tribute to a certain kind of indie crime flick of yore. It’s perhaps with a related ambition to aim for something more vintage, less contemporary in tone that “First Date” generally disregards the existence of modern-day features such as social media in the lives of its teens. But this omission only furthers the atmosphere of inauthenticity in a film that might have played better if set in an earlier time period.
In short, both Brown and Duclos get regrettably shortchanged here, with the latter especially seeming reduced down to a banal trope: gorgeous, resourceful, and mature girl-next-door with a heart of gold. While Mike does reach a place of self-actualization in the end, his newfound sense of identity feels unearned, even accidental on the heels of an untidily directed and edited third-act shootout. In fact, the whole ill-fated affair spins like a choppy rollercoaster ride, with not much substance to offer beyond a few cheap thrills.
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