In Theaters: Date Night
Date Night succeeds chiefly in making the work that its two stars do on the same major television network seem anything but mainstream. NBC's primetime wonder twins Tina Fey and Steve Carell face a strange, almost quaint crossroads in their career: Having conquered the small screen, the received show biz wisdom would demand they dominate the big one. It may be time to call that model of stardom outmoded, especially if these are the paces they must be put through. I'm not sure what other explanation would account for their agreeing to headline such a straight shot up the middle; it's a little discomfiting to watch, even as their presence adds a sizable compensation to this broad, hectic and occasionally endearing take on the screwball set-up.
A married couple settled into suburban New Jersey life with their two horrible children, Fey plays Claire Foster, a real estate agent, and Carell is Phil, an accountant. Early scenes establish the unsurprisingly adorable rapport between the couple, who attend their Tuesday "date night" as dutifully as they do their abominable book-club meetings or soccer practice pick-ups. It has never really occurred to the Fosters to question their relationship -- they may just be too tired -- but the break-up of their friends (played in a nice cameo by Mark Ruffalo and Kristen Wiig) confronts them with the question of whether they, too, are essentially just "excellent roommates" who occasionally manage to stop turning each other off long enough to have sex.
Fey responds predictably (I know, it hurts to write it) and gets gussied up for their next date; Phil is up to the challenge, insisting they go to a trendy restaurant in Manhattan. Completely out of their element and lacking a reservation, they slide into a table meant for a couple called the Tripplehorns, and the big-budget plot machine grinds into action. Here the script, by Shrek writer Josh Klausner, also sets up one of the film's few grace notes: Seated among a host of other couples, the Fosters take turns making up stories for them based largely on their appearance and their body language. Apparently improvised on the suggestion of the stars, they are a cruel hint of what could have been (outtakes are played over the credits). That looseness and wit is even more tantalizing when contrasted with the kind of stale sitcom humor (the kind rarely seen, ironically enough, on their actual sitcoms) that prevails. "If we're going to pay this much for crab," Claire says, "it better sing and dance and introduce me to the Little Mermaid."
Of course the Fosters' story is pretty much exactly what it seems: a boring couple from New Jersey -- a phrase Claire utters herself -- straining to add interest to their lives. I suppose the point of the film, if there is one, is that there's nothing wrong with that, as long as you don't hate each other and/or emasculate your husband with your Type-A mania. We go a long way for that, however, beginning when a couple of thugs (Jimmi Simpson and Common) mistake them for the deadbeat Tripplehorns. Despite making a clearly genuine plea for their innocence (notwithstanding their clear etiquette violation, a source of dismay that forms a running gag), they are held accountable for the flash drive the actual Tripplehorns (an alias that winds up being a couple of burnouts played, in a relatively funny scene, by James Franco and Mila Kunis) are withholding from a mob boss played by Ray Liotta.
Slightly less-standard casting is that of Mark Wahlberg as a former client of Claire's whose sideline in special ops and high tech security helps them out of a couple of jams, all while his third nipple beams out soulfully from his much-lamented (if only by Carell) bare chest. Directed by (according to the press notes) "action-comedy maestro" Shawn Levy (Night at the Museum), the film certainly delivers on the dubious promise of that description: The wacky mayhem includes a boathouse shootout and escape, a car chase involving two interlocked vehicles, and, for maximum degradation, the spectacle of the film's stars decked out in skank- and pimp-wear and forced to work a stripper pole.
What's remarkable are a few tender moments wedged in between, including a scene in which Phil is flummoxed by his wife's confession to a fantasy not of running off with someone else but of having a night all to herself. They can't quite offset the film's routine, contractual oppressions (just a boring movie from Hollywood), but it's enough to remind us why we signed on for our collective relationship with two of comedy's leading and most likable performers.