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DAVE DAVIES, host:

Sitcom fans will be excited to see that two TV superstars, Steve Carell and Tina Fey, are on the big screen in a new romantic action comedy called "Date Night." Film critic David Edelstein says they haven't brought their sophisticated brand of comedy along with them.

DAVID EDELSTEIN: 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 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.

(Soundbite of film, "Date Night")

Mr. STEVE CARELL (Actor): (as Phil Foster) I want to talk to your boss right now.

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (as character) I think we both know that's not going to happen, Mr. Triplehorn, or should I say - Phil Foster?

Unidentified Man #2 (Actor): (as character) Next time you make a dinner reservation, don't use the same alias as your ransom notes, genius.

Ms. TINA FEY (Actor): (as Claire Foster) Let me explain. My husband very sweetly but delusionally thought that we could make it here early enough to get a table, and we didn't. We were late, and when we heard them calling the reservation for Triplehorns, he was like us, us, and we took it.

Unidentified Man #3 (Actor): (as character) So you just took somebody else's reservation?

Ms. FEY: (As Claire) For the record, I was against it, but my husband gets these plans in his head, and it becomes like a thing.

Mr. CARELL: (As Phil) I'm an idiot.

EDELSTEIN: 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, and 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.

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 -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?

DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: We're ending today's show with music from jazz pianist John Bunch, who died last week at the age of 88. His graceful playing and elegant touch was grounded both in the swing era and in bebop. As jazz critic Ira Gitler(ph) wrote: There are ways to swing at virtually any tempo, and Bunch knows them all.

(Soundbite of music)

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