As the centerpieces of Emmy magnets The Office and 30 Rock, respectively, Steve Carell and Tina Fey are arguably the two funniest people anywhere on TV. Yet it's a testament to Hollywood's spectacular inability to think outside the hunk-meets-bombshell box that these two comic gems have still yet to claw their way into the Tinseltown A-List, with studios seemingly content to funnel millions into high-profile flops starring the Gerard Butlers and Sandra Bullocks of the world. It's no big mystery as to why, really – they're not drop dead gorgeous enough, which for a studio rom-com simply does not compute. It's their loss, as handily demonstrated by this ludicrously contrived comedic crime-thriller, single-handedly saved from potential disaster by it's star's combined comedic smarts.
The mistaken identity set-up is ridiculous, the script is much of the time winsome, and the absurdly escalating series of very bad decisions that drives the plot is the worst kind of movie-logic imaginable. But, damn it if Fey and Carell don't muster up enough mousy, awkward comic bravado to make Date Night funnier than it has any right to be. The story finds worn-out suburban couple, Phil and Claire Foster, sleep deprived by the kids, worn down by work, and able to summon just enough energy to enable each other to pass on the obligatory midweek, mid-marriage fumble guilt free. It's cliched, but as couple comedy goes it's remarkably authentic, and anyone wearing a ring with smile at the snatched glances at the sports headlines before bed, condescending pokes at other couples in restaurants, and men running off to hide in the den/man cave/bedroom for guys in their forties. And Fey and Carell know just how to work it.
They're so good in fact that the arrival of two corrupt detectives who mistakenly believe them to be the 'Tripplehorns,' a couple blackmailing their mobster boss (Ray Liotta, wearing more guyliner than Adam Lambert), really just gets in the way. With no clue how to orchestrate a second act transition, director Shawn Levy suddenly assaults us with a barrage of penis jokes and gunfire, two things which don't exactly go together (unless you're Leslie Nielsen of course). From there on the need to keep things moving means all good sense is abandoned, and rather than simply going to the police our couple elect that the best course of action is the find the real Tripplehorns, and steal back the blackmail evidence in order to save themselves. As one would.
Much of the time the comedy comes from various stages of mania and panic, and a supercool Mark Wahlberg's perfectly rounded pecs. The rest of the laughs come courtesy of The Fosters undertaking bizarre levels of personal risk to overcome their perceived fears over their rut-stuck relationship (she thinks he thinks she is boring, while he thinks she thinks that he can't be counted on). While far from unfunny much of the time, Date Night is heavily reliant on it's very talented star's improv ability, much of which they hit right out of the park, but light on actual jokes. And as good as they are, they aren't even the funniest thing in it. No, that comes courtesy of another chameleonic turn from James Franco, accompanied by a skankified Mila Kunis, as the real Tripplehorns, who almost walk off with the whole movie in a little under four minutes.
As a couple comedy mining giggles from the endless compromise that is long-term, monogamous commitment, Date Night is a winner. As a crime-caper, propelled by two semi-delusional suburbanites doing some really stupid shit, not so much. But if Carell and Fey can generate this much funny out of material this weak, we can't wait to see what they might do when given a better script and paired with a director capable of matching their great comic ability. It's only a matter of time, surely.
Starring: Steve Carell, Tina Fey, Mark Wahlberg, Taraji P. Henson, Kristen Wiig, Ray Liotta, James Franco, Mila Kunis, William Fichtner
Director: Shawn Levy
Runtime: 88 Minutes
Distributor: 20th Century Fox