Date Night is a testament to the comic timing and delivery of Steve Carell and Tina Fey. On the page, their characters aren’t that interesting and their circumstances aren’t very exciting, but Carell and Fey make the film come alive with their affability, dorky charm, and their gift for comedy. They transform Date Night into a bland romcom affair into a fun screwball comedy worth seeing even if they’re playing more subdued versions of their well-known leading roles on TV’s 30 Rock and The Office.
Phil and Claire Foster (Carell and Fey) are stuck in a rut. They’re still in love but they’re secretly afraid the other will file for divorce at any moment due to their dreary lifestyle. Determined to break out of their funk, Phil and Claire go for a date night in the city. As they hopelessly wait for a table at a completely booked restaurant, Phil decides they should take the table of an absent party, the Tripplehorns (James Franco and Mila Kunis). Unfortunately, the Tripplehorns are mixed up in some bad business and a case of mistaken identity forces Phil and Claire to run for their lives and get off the hook before they get whacked by mobsters and dirty cops.
The script succeeds in getting the characters from one situation to another but it’s entirely up to Carell and Fey to make those scenes work. Breaking into an office or doing a pole dance disguised as a hooker and a pimp have potential but it takes two talented comedians like Carell and Fey to make it work. Both actors came out of the Chicago improv comedy troupe Second City and they know how to play off a fellow comic rather than hog the spotlight or steal the scene. It’s about hitting the joke back and forth and it almost makes you wish for a 30 Rock/The Office crossover. That will never happen but Date Night is as close as you’ll get since Fey and Carell are basically playing Liz Lemon and Michael Scott but minus the neuroses. But the comic mannerisms-dorky behavior, muttering commentary on absurd situations, awkward line delivery to other characters-are all present. It doesn’t feel like Liz and Michael got married as much as it feels like Fey and Carell’s comic sensibilities click perfectly.
Unfortunately, the two don’t click as well when it comes to romantic chemistry. There’s a scene where Carell and Fey pull over to talk about their feelings even though they’re in the middle of being chased down by the bad guys. What hurts the scene even more is that A) it’s a forced moment of emotional connection and B) the characters feel more like good friends attempting to reconnect rather than a husband and wife talking intimately about their feelings.
It’s also unfortunate that the entire supporting cast is wasted with the surprise exception of William Fichtner as the New York City District Attorney. It’s not surprising that Fichtner’s good (the guy’s a solid character actor), but that normally reliable actors like Franco and Kunis would hardly get any laughs in their brief appearances.
I do have to give some credit to director Shawn Levy. I’ve found all of Levy’s previous films (The Pink Panther remakes, the Night at the Museum movies) to be insipid and uninspired, but with Date Night he manages to find equilibrium with Fey and Carell’s comedy. Levy knows when to hold a shot for comedic effect, when to cut to a reaction shot, and most importantly, when to get out of the way and let his lead actors work their magic. However, the man still has no idea how to competently direct action as he stumbles his way through a plodding and unnecessary car chase scene.
It may not be anything spectacular, but Date Night is an old-fashioned screwball comedy that mostly works. A tedious car chase, lack of romantic chemistry, and a missed opportunity with the supporting performances hurt the film, but they feel like minor issues when compared to the outstanding performances from Carell and Fey that will have you laughing throughout.