Carell and Fey play Phil and Claire Foster, a boring married couple living in New Jersey. They have two kids and a couple of uninteresting careers (he’s a tax lawyer, she’s a real estate agent), and every week they have a date night at the same local restaurant, eating the same things they always do. They love each other, and are in no danger of divorce, but they have settled into a rut.
For the first 15 or 20 minutes, the film is a low-key examination of how couples can slide into being “excellent roommates” through no fault of their own, but then the plot kicks in. One week, Phil decides he wants date night to be special, complete with a fancy dinner at a restaurant in New York, even though the couple doesn’t have a reservation. After being rebuffed by an ultra-haughty maitre d’, the Fosters hijack the reservations of a couple named the Tripplehorns that doesn’t show up. This results in them being mistaken for that couple by some bad guys (Jimmi Simpson and Common) who want to retrieve a flash drive full of incriminating information that the Tripplehorns stole.
Fey and Carell have a lovely chemistry, their styles meshing together to form believable portrayals of a normal, if goofy, couple. Their smaller scenes together are some of the film’s finest moments. They even make the serious scenes, when they discuss their relationship, seem both realistic and funny.
The script, written by Josh Klausner, has a few nice touches (note the disgust from everyone, including the criminals, when the Fosters admit to stealing someone else’s reservations), but definitely gets bogged down in uninteresting plot mechanics. The movie wants to be a modern screwball comedy, or a film like Martin Scorsese’s After Hours in which a night in New York feels like a descent into hell, but it ends up being a rather lame entry in both of those genres. It is definitely possible to make an interesting romantic action comedy, even if recent films like The Bounty Hunter don’t make it seem so, but this film’s action, and a little too much of its comedy, are sadly perfunctory.
Perhaps it’s unfair to credit jokes that work to Carell and Fey, while blaming Klausner for the script’s dull and formulaic plot, but I’m going to do it anyway. We see from a gag reel during the movie’s end credits just how much improvisation the stars brought to the film, while Klausner’s only other writing credits are the dismal third, and upcoming fourth, Shrek films.
Fey and Carell are undoubtedly the main reason the film works, but they are joined by quite a few well-known co-stars who help spice things up. Mark Wahlberg’s shirtless torso (the rest of him is there, too, but you won’t really notice) co-stars as a security expert who helps the Fosters. James Franco and Mila Kunis show up for one scene and re-energize the film playing the criminals Carell and Fey were mistaken for. They’re like a funhouse mirror version of the Fosters, whose problems revolve less around the PTA and more around turning tricks out of the champagne room at a strip club.
Taraji P. Henson appears in the film as a cop who is following both the Fosters and the crooked cops who are trailing them. Ray Liotta also shows up as a gangster (surprise, surprise), and William Fichtner has an amusing few scenes at a district attorney.
All these talented actors are very game to play along, so it’s too bad that for the most part we don’t want them to, since their parts mostly have to do with the movie’s crime plot. Whenever the movie mentions gangsters or flash drives, or trots out an action sequence, audience members will likely find their eyes wandering toward their watches. After all, who goes to a Tina Fey movie for a car chase?
It doesn’t help matters any that the film was directed by Shawn Levy, the swill merchant who inflicted the Pink Panther remake and the Night at the Museum movies on the world, and he brings his trademarked listless, mediocre sheen to the movie. Levy is given one interesting action scene to film—a car chase in which the fronts of two cars are stuck together like two rams with locked horns—but he shoots it with the same indifference as always. But Levy does know how to get out of the actors’ way, and the film is at its best when it just allows Fey and Carell to riff. The humor of the film is less in the big, slapsticky action sequences, and more in the little comments Carell and Fey trade with each other.
Action set pieces and crime plots aren’t necessarily the enemy of good comedy—just check out Midnight Run if you don’t believe me—but it helps if the action and plot are interesting, and here they just aren’t, which leaves an awfully large burden on the shoulders of the actors. Carell and Fey do definitely keep Date Night from sinking, but you could probably get more entertainment from stringing together three random episodes from either The Office or 30 Rock.
Carey Norris writes about film for Birmingham Weekly. Send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.