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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

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Tyler Perry’s “I Can Do Bad” a (surprisingly) good character study

Taraji P. Henson is the heart and soul of Tyler Perry's above-average "I Can Do Bad All by Myself."

Taraji P. Henson is the heart and soul of Tyler Perry's mostly above-average "I Can Do Bad All by Myself."

Above all else, Tyler Perry’s poignant “I Can Do Bad All by Myself” is a movie about people who have fallen through what Pastor Brian (Marvin Winans) calls “the crevices of life.” Nobody’s as familiar with this predicament as April Sullivan (Taraji P. Henson), a nightclub singer who pretends she’s perfectly happy sleeping with married sleazeball Randy (Brian J. White) and waking up every morning with a raging hangover. Trouble is, April’s smart enough to know better. She just doesn’t see much reason to try to be better. 

This is where Perry succeeds: He explores — much as he did in the uplifting “Diary of a Mad Black Woman” — the ways in which other people more and less fortunate than the closed-down April try to hoist her off the bottom. There’s Sandino (Adam Rodriguez), a Colombian immigrant living as a boarder in April’s basement. Still more people offer help: Tanya (Mary J. Blige), the nightclub bartender whom we suspect has survived rougher times than April; Pastor Brian; and Wilma (Gladys Knight), a churchgoer whose faith in her God and herself never wavers. Though April mistrusts their kindness, pushes them away, they keep showing up. Characters like this, so willing to be completely present for someone bent on self-destruction, give “I Can Do Bad” the kind of real emotional heft (not sap) and heart that most of Perry’s movies lack.

If only the writer-producer-direct-actor could have stopped there, he’d have made a good movie, possibly even a really good one. But since he’s Tyler Perry, he insists on interrupting the important scenes with what we’ve come to call “Madea Moments.” These moments, as per usual, are little more than crazed rants by the unhinged Madea, that homicidal nutjob who outlived her usefulness shortly after “Diary of a Mad Black Woman” wrapped. Why Perry insists on hanging onto this woman — who, yes, made him a name but now serves merely as a loud nuisance — is a mystery. He’s better than this.

Fortunately, the Madea Moments are few and far-between. This is a blessing that gives us time to get good and involved in the meat of “I Can Do Bad”: April’s reaction to the discovery she’s the only living relative of her late sister’s three children, brought to her house by an enraged Madea after they attempted to steal her VCR. April has no room in her life for anything but booze, cigarettes and Randy, who claims to hate kids but looks a bit forgetful of this every time he eyes 16-year-old Jennifer (Hope Olaide Wilson). Sandino’s appearance complicates things even more because he feels sorry for the children and tries to make them feel welcome in a home where it’s crystal clear they’re not wanted.

Because this is a Perry movie, certain things must happen. Why else would “I Can Do Bad” have such a rushed, pat ending that barely fits with the 70-plus insightful minutes that came before it? Tradition. But other Perry staples work nicely, particularly musical numbers — the best being Mary J. Blige’s blistering-good “I Can Do Bad All by Myself” — that underscore the characters’ emotional states. And Madea does have one funny scene involving a convoluted Bible tale involving Noah and (no kidding) the St. Louis Arch.

It’s the people, though, that separate “I Can Do Bad” from the pack. Blige doesn’t have a huge part, but she brings a strong, no-B.S. energy to the screen. Rodriguez, mostly here to look pretty, continues to radiate that surprising mix of warmth and vulnerability he supplies on (stop laughing) “CSI: Miami.” And when an Oscar nominee like Taraji P. Henson shows up in Perry production, rest assured the big guns have been called. She does not disappoint as April, making her a woman who turned hard young out of emotional necessity but kept it up because being numb and bitter became comfortable. She’s the emotional core that makes “I Can Do Bad” the strongest movie Perry’s ever made … which is more of a compliment than you’d think.

Grade: B-