Steve Carell and Tina Fey, two of the most consistently funny people working in TV and movies today, star as a suburban married couple who spend one eventful night out on the town in Manhattan in “Date Night.”
The premise itself is promising—it’s a mistaken identity caper with a twist. Raising their kids and working so much has left little alone time for accountant Phil (Carell) and his real-estate agent wife Claire (Fey).
They escape into the big city for date night, determined to have fun, but lapse into their old set-in habits. So when the couple is mistaken for some mob blackmailers, they finally get some excitement.
The problem is: It’s too much excitement. Fey and Carell have an easy chemistry and rapport, but once they start breaking into businesses and climbing out on the hoods of moving cars, the movie can’t make up its mind about putting Phil and Claire in real danger or merely exploiting their fish-out-of-water nature for standard laughs.
The result is one of those typical middle-of-the-road comedies that can’t commit either way.
A riskier move that might have had a way bigger payoff would have been to keep the movie in the realm of the possible rather than straight surface-value comedy. The danger would be real, the comedy would be bigger and more uncomfortable (a strength of both actors), and the relationship would hold more weight.
The ridiculousness of these situations isn’t inherently bad—it’s nothing we haven’t seen from classic screwball comedy (think Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn in the manic classic “Bringing Up Baby”)—it’s just that director Shawn Levy (“Night at the Museum” and its sequel) can’t keep any consistent tone.
One minute its forced slapstick, the next it’s a bullet-riddled car chase—and neither works.
It doesn’t help that every five minutes there’s another cameo from a major Hollywood star. In fact, that only breaks the contract with the audience even more and reminds us that all these actors (not their characters) are working hard to make us laugh.
No longer are Carell and Fey a “boring couple from New Jersey,” but instead two gifted comedic actors struggling to make undercooked material funnier.
And that’s a real killer.