In their respective hit television series The Office and 30 Rock, Steve Carell and Tina Fey play neurotic characters who are amusingly single — his Michael Scott and her Liz Lemon are, in their distinctive ways, pathologically bad relationship material in a world built for couples. Yet the appeal of both gifted comics is rooted in emotional maturity. Carell and Fey (each married in private life, each a parent) project an intellectual sharpness and an understanding of what’s important in life — and what’s ridiculous — that are the hallmarks of endearingly sane adults capable of sustaining both a hot career and a warm marriage-with-children. Date Night, a robustly overbusy caper comedy in which Carell and Fey play a too-settled suburban mister and missus embroiled in unsettling urban mayhem, draws smartly on its stars’ considerable strengths. As the characters wiggle their way out of scrapes during a bizarro night in New York City, the actors hold steady as grownups, a rarity in a world of rom-coms about flighty girls and lost boys. And as a result, even when the action veers into tedium, the leads provide their own excellent entertainment. Box office champ Shawn Levy (Night at the Museum) directs this soft-edged all-American couples comedy with a nod of the chin to TV sitcoms and a tip of the hat to William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles in their Thin Man movies. The movie is a Walter Mitty fantasy for the modern kids’-playdate set.
As extensive TV advertising has already made clear, Carell and Fey play Phil and Claire Foster, happy if bored married New Jerseyites with two midlevel careers, two kids, and a weekly ”date night” at a local suburban eatery that’s as predictable as an episode of The King of Queens. But when Phil seizes on the couples-therapy-approved notion of perking up their marriage with dinner at a Manhattan hot spot, the result of his thoughtful gesture is a case of mistaken identity that leads to a rendezvous with corrupt cops, mobsters, thieves, and — scariest of all — imperious restaurant maître d’s. In the way of such adventures in wonderland, one close call turns into another, and husband and wife come to see each other in a new light: Phil’s not the downtrodden wimp he appears to be on the surface; Claire’s the Tina Fey-ish wry babe we’ve known she was from the start. Cool costars in small roles include William Fichtner as a sleazy DA, James Franco and Mila Kunis as a couple of grifters, Ray Liotta as a gangster (what else?!), and Mark Wahlberg, in a buff and funny homage to his shirtless Marky Mark days, as a handy, shadowy ”security expert.” For kicks, Kristen Wiig and Mark Ruffalo have a tiny, pointed bit as divorcing Jerseyites. I’d love to see these two in their own his-and-hers caper, based on Hepburn and Tracy’s Adam’s Rib.
Meanwhile, in the way of such escapades, the action is broadly stupid — dully, routinely, smash-automobiles-up stupid, as Levy and screenwriter Josh Klausner attend to the needs of an imaginary audience segment. Who comes to a comedy starring Steve Carell and Tina Fey raring for a slapstick car chase in which Carell shrieks, ”Waaaaaa!” like he’s Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone? There’s no fear that Phil and Claire won’t survive their dangerous night on the town. No worries, either, that their marriage won’t be strengthened by their own personal After Hours experience, during which the Fosters will learn that the grass is plenty green right where they are in New Jersey (a magical Garden State, indeed, in which Gossip Girl’s Leighton Meester moonlights as a babysitter).
Date Night is a conservative comedy with mainstream values and easy-to-follow lessons. (Lesson one: Don’t steal somebody else’s reservation at a Manhattan hot spot!) But with Carell and Fey collaborating, the movie becomes far more interesting than its plot or structure. Phil is a kind, resourceful, appreciative husband and father. Plus, he’s funny. Claire is a quick-witted, adaptable, perceptive wife and mother. Plus, she’s funny. For this 21st-century Nick and Nora Charles, the flame is kept alive despite his nighttime anti-snore nose strip and her nighttime bite guard — thanks to a shared appreciation of the hilarity of nose strips and bite guards. B