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Steve Carell and Tina Fey bring their estimable comic chops to “Date Night,” which sadly illustrates the current disparity between television and big-screen comedy. These talented performers star in two of the wittiest, most sophisticated sitcoms on the air, but for this movie pairing they’re stuck with an endlessly silly plot line and overblown physical mayhem that is instantly forgettable. The fact that they make it so funny nonetheless is a testament to their abilities.
For the first 20 minutes or so, the film is a subtly amusing portrait of a suburban married couple, Phil and Claire Foster (Carell and Fey), who have settled into an all-too-predictable routine. Endlessly coping with the hard work of raising two young children while trying to maintain their careers, their only respite is an unexciting weekly dinner at a local steakhouse.
That is, until Phil decides to spice things up one evening by taking Claire to Manhattan to eat at a trendy restaurant. Naturally, no tables are available, so they impulsively grab another couple’s reservation. That’s when the trouble begins, as their meal is interrupted by a pair of hoodlums (Common, Jimmi Simpson) who mistakenly drag them out the restaurant and demand the return of a computer flash drive that they’ve supposedly stolen from a mobster.
Predictable chaos ensues, with the couple desperately trying to escape the bad guys’ clutches while being pursued throughout Manhattan. Fortunately, director Shawn Levy keeps the action moving at such a fast pace that things never get tedious.
Josh Klausner’s screenplay is thoroughly derivative in terms of its mistaken-identity plot, but it features more than a few one-liners that, as delivered by the film’s stars, seem hilariously spontaneous. (Indeed, the end credit outtakes indicate that there was more than a little improvisation by the two stars). There’s also a decent amount of funny running gags, including various characters’ horrified reactions to the couple’s having stolen a restaurant reservation and their seeking help from a perpetually shirtless hunky security expert, played with amusing self-mockery by Mark Wahlberg.
Another highlight is the Fosters’ encounter with two heavily tattooed bohemians, played with enjoyable comic relish by James Franco and Mila Kunis. William Fichtner also scores laughs as a district attorney with a hidden streak of perversity.
Taraji P. Henson, as a no-nonsense detective, and Ray Liotta, as (what else?) a mobster, have comparatively little to work with. And Mark Ruffalo and Kristen Wiig, briefly seen as a couple on the verge of divorce, seem to have merely stopped by the set one day as a favor.
Ultimately, it’s Carell and Fey, displaying an unmistakable chemistry together, who give the film its entertainment value, not the overblown car chases and shootouts. If they could make this sort of routine premise work as well as it does, imagine what they could do with really inspired material.
Opens: Friday, April 9 (Twentieth Century Fox)
Rated PG-13, 87 minutes
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