On 'Date Night,' Fey And Carell Should Have Stayed In

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Tina Fey, Steve Carell, Mark Wahlberg

Tina Fey and Steve Carell star as a married New Jersey couple who attempt to rekindle their romance with a night on the town in New York. Mark Wahlberg co-stars as a security expert who flirts with Fey. Suzanne Tenner/Twentieth Century Fox hide caption

itoggle caption Suzanne Tenner/Twentieth Century Fox

Date Night

  • Director: Shawn Levy
  • Genre: Comedy
  • Running Time: 88 minutes
Rated PG-13 for sexual and crude content throughout, language, some violence and a drug reference.

With: Steve Carell, Tina Fey, Mark Wahlberg

One of the funniest things in Date Night isn't actually in Date Night, but on one of the movie's several posters. Tina Fey is in her gauzy purplish party dress spattered with mud, her hair all splayed out — but with her right hand she's smoothing the ends in a cool, sexy way. That pose gives a hint of Fey's brilliance: It's the teensy neurotic — or maybe obsessive-compulsive — gesture that's totally at odds with what's happening in the moment. She's not just a gifted mimic. As she proved in her Sarah Palin impersonations, Fey grasps the continuum between her characters' vanity and insanity.

The movies haven't done her justice — but then, movies are increasingly the lesser medium for comic actors like Fey and her Date Night co-star, Steve Carell. They're the stars of two network sitcoms that have moved the boundary posts, yet their comedies on the big screen are bloated and generic. You see them working too hard to be funny, doing broad shtick that's only tangentially related to the characters they're playing.

The premise of Date Night is perfectly serviceable — classic, even. It's the old North by Northwest mistaken-identity nightmare. A New Jersey couple named Phil and Claire Foster fear that their domestic life has become stale and wearying and decide to hit the town and rekindle their youthful passion. But they overreach; they get in way over their heads. At a super-trendy Manhattan restaurant where they don't have a prayer of getting a table, Phil takes another couple's reservation when that couple doesn't answer the hostess' page. They have such a great meal and so much good wine that they almost don't mind when two men they think work for the restaurant order them to leave the table and bring them out to the alley.

Even with material this uninspired, Fey and Carell have style and aplomb. Carell has a good frozen deadpan — he's often funnier when he's just about to speak than when he finally gets the words out. When the camera sits back and just watches them, their rhythms are rather exquisite. So are their scenes with Mark Wahlberg as an old real-estate client of Claire's who helps them figure out who's hunting them. Wahlberg is shirtless and so pumped-up that his trapezoid muscles have their own trapezoid muscles; Fey stares at him and babbles away, glassy-eyed, while Carell stares at him with so much shame at his own puny status, he can barely speak.

Common, Jimmi Simpson i

Common and Jimmi Simpson play detectives in a Date Night subplot David Edelstein calls "lazy and slapdash even by dumb-comedy standards." Myles Aronowitz/Twentieth Century Fox hide caption

itoggle caption Myles Aronowitz/Twentieth Century Fox
Common, Jimmi Simpson

Common and Jimmi Simpson play detectives in a Date Night subplot David Edelstein calls "lazy and slapdash even by dumb-comedy standards."

Myles Aronowitz/Twentieth Century Fox

But Date Night is not a movie that honors exquisite rhythms. It's a movie that calls for big, whacking hysteria — and dumb slapstick, and car chases. The director, Shawn Levy, made Night at the Museum and its sequel, and the Steve Martin remakes of The Pink Panther and Cheaper by the Dozen. He's considered one of Hollywood's top comedy directors, probably because he bashes things along so that kids have a good time and parents don't get bored. But he's a comedy killer. Even potentially great bits — like when Carell and Fey pretend to be a pimp and a prostitute and perform the nerdiest pole dance in film history — don't build and pay off. The supporting actors who have to carry the plot, something to do with a corrupt D.A. and a blackmailing gangster, which is lazy and slapdash even by dumb-comedy standards, look marooned.

There are great TV comedians who push the envelope onscreen. Ricky Gervais, who created the role on The Office that Steve Carell Americanized, made the daringly irreverent The Invention of Lying. Will Ferrell hit dizzying slapstick heights in Stepbrothers. I'm not sure Carell and Fey are in their league, but if they keep working in vehicles like this, how will we ever know?



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