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Fey and Carell are a comedy dream team in “Date Night”

People who steal dinner reservations (Tina Fey, Steve Carell) have to use the payphone that smells like urine.

Just as the trailers promise, Phil and Claire Foster (Steve Carell, Tina Fey) spend a lot of time in “Date Night” shrieking and dishevelled, running around like (nicely dressed) headless chickens. But we all know that underneath those layers of ironic normalcy they’ve been waiting years for something this exciting to happen, something to shake them out of their two-car, two-job, two-kid coma. Neither one had the energy to concoct an adventure themselves. All they needed was a movie to do it for them.

This is ground zero of why “Date Night” is such a pointlessly entertaining romp: It makes perfect sense that Phil and Claire’s situation makes no sense. Phil and Claire are nice, overexerted suburbanites who have lost their spark to jobs and kids, and why would they get wrapped up in this kind of tomfoolery if it wasn’t a plot contrivance? Shawn Levy’s “Date Night” requires only that Fey and Carell play along, sell their chagrin at these outrageous circumstances and, at the end, give in/enjoy the adrenaline rush of it all and be a little changed — for the better — by the whole experience. This plot has been done umpteen-thousand times, but it has not been done by Tina Fey and Steve Carell, which makes all the difference. They have the right look, the right romatic and comedy chemistry, the right comic timing (their invented stories about other diners are invaluable). They are the key. Without them, “Date Night” would be just another ho-hum entry in the genre.

Levy wastes little time painting a portrait of suburban life, possibly because he knows there’s no need; this is been-there, done-that territory. Phil and Claire are the definition of respectable married people. He is a tax man who quietly urges his clients to invest their $600 refund instead of blowing it on a trip to Spain so they can “do it on the beach”; she is a real estate agent who lies about how close her houses are to New York City. They see each other mornings and nights, where Claire putting on her dental Night Guard is code for “nobody’s having sex in this bed tonight.” Two jobs and two kids and him never closing any drawer ever have muted their spark. Adventure takes over when Phil and Claire, at a high-falutin’ NYC restaurant, steal the Tripplehorns’ (James Franco, Mila Kunis) reservation. (This becomes a running gag that loses only a little steam by the conclusion.) This is worse than stealing someone else’s reservation because the Tripplehorns are in cahoots with a meanie mobster (Ray Liotta as Ray Liotta), two dirty cops (Jimmi Simpson, Common) and the DA (William Fichtner), a man who cannot resist a lap dance.

Spending any more time detailing the plot would be useless, because it’s standard-issue fish-outta-water comedy stuff. The important thing isn’t what happens but how Fey and Carell make what happens funny. There are, perhaps, no two comedians better suited for this: Fey excels at acerbic observational humor and withering sarcasm, while Carell could make understated physical comedy and rants into Olympic sports. For fans of both, this is an epic pairing that should have happened years ago. Marvel at the way Carell loses his cool with Claire’s perpetually shirtless ex-client Holbrooke (Mark Wahlberg, funnier than people give him credit for), or Carell’s expression as he clings to the hood of a cab he’s driven into the Hudson. Then there’s the matter of their bizarre “routine” in a local strip joint, which defies explanation and contains a shoutout to “Showgirls.” They get support from Franco and Kunis, no slouches in the ha-ha department, who are underused as the Tripplehorns but make their parts memorable. Kristen Wiig provides her usual outrageous soundbites, and Fichtner, too, a workhorse of a character actor, is somewhat wasted in his part. Please, Hollywood, let Wiig and Fichtner headline some movies. Just one each?

Then again, “Date Night” is essentially a big, noisy showcase for the talents of Steve Carell and Tina Fey. And if either one was any less talented, that might be a bad thing.

Grade: B

14 Responses

  1. I’m curious to hear that you dug this. As much as I have love for both Carell and Fey I generally prefer them in their safer settings on television. However I can’t deny their comic genius, and in the right setting could make some great comedy moments.

    I’ll wait for DVD on this one, but after your review will be less likely to put it on the back burner.

    • Good to know! This is one of those movies I probably would have said “meh” to if the lead actors were anyone other than Tina Fey or Michael Sco — er, I mean Steve Carell. They work well together. They’re funny together. I had no trouble believing they were married. That was all I needed to enjoy the movie.

  2. not sure i need to see this one
    mind you, i enjoyed Get Smart

  3. hey! you have a new Gravatar!

  4. Great film. I like it.

  5. I was going to pass on this but I think you’ve convinced me that it may just be funny enough to check out. I’ll wait for the DVD probably unless I find myself really bored. I guess it couldn’t be too bad with Carrell in there though.

  6. Good review.

    Alright, nobody to my knowledge has said it yet. I’m going to take this opportunity to just blurt it out, get it outta the way, okay: Ray Liotta has pretty eyes.

  7. I’ll watch this only for Carell, Fey is just ok, but after reading this review, I’ll rush to see it … on dvd 🙂 Even without seeing the movie, I sense that this is only worth watching only because those two were cast, if it were say, McCoughnahey (who cares how it’s spelled) and Kate Hudson or Sarah Jessica, then it’s an automatic blech! Agree about Wahlberg, that’s why The Other Guys look like a hoot. As for Wiig, yes she definitely merits a leading role, but right now at least she’s getting some fun movie gigs. I just mentioned her in a new Pegg/Frost comedy with a stellar cast of comedians!

    • @ The Film Reel — (Almost) nothing Steve Carell could do would be bad. Except maybe that upcoming movie with Paul Rudd, which looks very stupid.

      @ Simon — There’s a lot of soul behind those eyes, but most people are too put off by the seething inner rage to notice!

      @ Ruth — I have made a solemn vow never to see another movie with Kate Hudson or The Tan Shirtless Texan (it’s easier than spelling his last name). “Failure to Launch” with SJP was so atrocious I’ve tried to block it from memory.

  8. Hey I’m glad I’m not the only one who thinks Schmucks looks daft, and I’m a big Carell fan. Wow, even the moniker you give the McCrapnahey can be considered a compliment, fitting though it may be. Sorry to hear you have to endure FtL, M, yeah I can see how you wish you could un-see it.

    • I had no choice: I was trapped on a four-hour flight from Texas to Seattle and my mp3 player’s battery died. It was “Failure to Launch” or braid my hair into cornrows. I know now that I should have gone with the cornrows.

  9. […] better than when he’s playing a character who’s miles outside of his comfort zone (see “Date Night” or “Dan in Real Life”), and Cal Weaver is never less comfortable than when he’s […]

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