In a recent Entertainment Weekly interview, Steve Carell recalls costar Tina Fey telling him: “I just want to go and do a movie and hang off the end of a car.”
This, of course, is the problem with being associated with successful, classy, verbally driven television series such as 30 Rock or The Office: You so rarely get to hang off the end of a car. Like the abrasive big-screen Get Smart (starring Carell) and the synthetic-formula Baby Mama (starring Fey), Date Night is a product substantially inferior to the material routinely finessed by Carell and Fey, on their respective hit shows, into comic gold.
And yet Date Night gets by, almost despite itself, on the durability and wiles of its stars. And because of one particular scene that belongs to two other performers, whom we’ll get to in a bit.
Director Shawn Levy’s film is a self-proclaimed “action comedy.” Entrenched in their domestic New Jersey routine, Phil and Claire Foster leave the kids with a sitter and hit Manhattan for dinner. Stuck without a reservation at a trendy restaurant they decide to live a little. When Phil hears the hostess call out the name “Tripplehorn,” he claims the name for his own, and faster than you can say “North By Northwest,” two thugs mistake the Fosters for the noshow Tripplehorns, who are apparently in oodles of criminal trouble.
Levy shoots much of Date Night like an ‘80s cop thriller of the Running Scared variety, which is hard on the comic mood. As Date Night revels in how danger and near-death experiences can reignite a marriage, it revels equally in how Carell and Fey can make a formulaic movie seem fresh, simply by virtue of their respective comic chops.
Comedy is more subjective than subjectivity itself. I mean, look: I liked Dan in Real Life (a recommendation I’m still hearing about, from angry total strangers). I liked it largely because Carell has range and shrewd instincts about how large or small a given moment needs to be. Fey, similarly, is a spectacular wit with stiletto timing, though like most writerperformers, she’s at the mercy of her scripts. (The end credits feature Carell and Fey riffing on outtakes that are funnier than screenwriter Josh Klausner’s lines.)
The people on-screen keep saving this one, none more so than James Franco and Mila Kunis. As lowlifes mixed up in the Tripplehorn saga, they give Date Night a shot in the arm, simply for the way Franco says the line, “Like I wanna spend the rest of my life selling stolen wheelchairs!” Their one scene lasts maybe five minutes, but they are crucial minutes. Their interplay with the stars of this vehicle makes up for a lot of backfiring elsewhere.
—MCT, Tribune Newspapers