We begin with the premise that Steve Carell and Tina Fey are funny. If you don’t accept this, then “Date Night” — in which they play a husband and wife who get mixed up in a crime caper while trying to enjoy a simple night out — has nothing for you. On the other hand, even fans of Carell and Fey might wonder if they belong together (they’ve never performed as a duo before), and especially in a comedy directed by middlebrow filmmaker Shawn Levy (“Night at the Museum,” “The Pink Panther”).
Happily, “Date Night” turns out to be a comfortable and good-natured effort, constantly enjoyable and frequently hilarious. Carell and Fey’s personas, already familiar to viewers of NBC’s Thursday night programming, mesh surprisingly well. I don’t think a “30 Rock”/”The Office” crossover is a good idea, but I’d certainly be in favor of more Fey/Carell collaborations.
They play Phil and Claire Foster, an ordinary New Jersey couple (he’s an accountant; she’s a Realtor) with two young kids and a pleasant, humdrum life. To keep the spark in their marriage, once a week they have a “date night,” where they leave the kids with the same babysitter and have the same dinner at the same steakhouse. Now it dawns on them that this attempt to keep things lively has simply become another rut. They need a REAL date night. Dinner in Manhattan! A nice restaurant! Something different!
It’s during this night on the town that they are mistaken for the Tripplehorns, a nefarious couple who have evidently run afoul of a local crime boss named Miletto (Ray Liotta). Two of his goons, Armstrong (Jimmi Simpson) and Collins (the rapper Common), accost Phil and Claire, demanding a flash drive that the Tripplehorns stole and which Phil and Claire of course have no knowledge of, but the goons don’t believe them, and so forth.
The expected shenanigans ensue: innocent people are caught up in the underworld; they have to run and scheme and use their ordinary-people powers to fix things. The formula is old hat. But if “Date Night” (written by erstwhile Farrelly Brothers collaborator Josh Klausner) doesn’t add anything to it, at least it doesn’t succumb to the worst tendencies of the genre. Phil and Claire, though they have their spats, especially under stress, are a team, both in their marriage and in outsmarting bad guys. They don’t become one of those couples who fight constantly. Nor do they instantly become action heroes, adept with guns and martial arts. Not that “Date Night” is realistic, exactly, but Phil and Claire react to their implausible situation more or less the way real people would.
Or maybe I should say they react the way Steve Carell and Tina Fey would. Phil isn’t obnoxious like Michael Scott, but he’s the same type of stammering, slightly inept schlub. And Claire basically is Liz Lemon: sardonic, somehow both resilient and hapless at the same time, adorably uncomfortable in her own skin. There’s even a joke about eating food off the ground, which is something Liz Lemon would totally do. (It’s also something you and I would do. That’s why we like her.)
This is the type of movie where the relationship between the main characters is supposed to be strengthened by all the peril. Usually you accept that that’s the outcome without really buying it. (Yeah, yeah, they learn and grow, whatever.) But I believe it this time. When the Fosters seek help from one of Claire’s real estate clients, and he’s a constantly shirtless, smolderingly handsome rich guy played by Mark Wahlberg, the way Claire lights up and Phil gets jealous (“Why do you need muscles on your shoulders??”) is good for some laughs. But it also leads to a conversation where they sound like real married people, with the kinds of frustrations that real married people have. That’s surprising in a flick like this, where you’re expecting the movie version of “real people,” not the real version. Later, they meet a gloriously trashy couple (played by James Franco and Mila Kunis) who seem like a parallel-universe version of themselves. The Fosters are alarmed at how sleazy these two are, but they’re also impressed by how devotedly in love they are. They learn from them. In the end, against all odds, Phil and Claire’s story actually turns out to be kind of sweet.
I could do without the action centerpiece, a loud, screeching thing in which two cars are stuck together and Fey, Carell, and a cabbie played by J.B. Smoove have to yell and defy the laws of physics a lot. It’s a prime example of deflating the comedy by becoming wholly untethered from reality. It’s also representative of the kind of bad movie this could have been, if sequences like this were the rule rather than the exception.
And while this could be seen as a flaw, I like that we never seriously doubt that everything will turn out OK in the end. We’re able to relax and enjoy the complications, secure in the knowledge that our friends Tina and Steve are just doin’ their thing, ad libbing snarky one-liners and being who we want them to be. At one point Phil and Claire have to try to be sexy at a strip club (don’t ask), and our well-established affection for them — for the actors, I mean — makes their doofy, middle-aged efforts that much more amusing. In short, we like these two. We relate to them. Phil and Claire, Steve and Tina, Michael Scott and Liz Lemon: they are us, only funnier. They make the movie work much better than it should have.
B (1 hr., 28 min.; )