The problem with too many comedies about relationships is that only half the couple is funny. There’s a familiar Hollywood pattern of pairing a standup comic with a “hot” actress who spends the film laughing at him or rolling her eyes. We occasionally see this reversed in female-oriented rom coms such as the Sex and the City movie, where women do the quipping and men stand around waiting to offer a dozen roses or pay for a walk-in closet.
Yet other scripts are misguided attempts to present both lovers as hilarious screwballs (The Ugly Truth, My Best Friend’s Girl) that somehow merely make them come off as hateful caricatures who deserve each other. But rarely does a film showcase a likeable couple that’s evenly matched and compatible in the wit department.
The best thing about Date Night, and one of the few reasons to see it, is that it does just that. Tina Fey and Steve Carell have similar comic styles — both lurching between moments of mania and paralyzing self-consciousness — and, not surprisingly, they match up fine. Playing Phil and Claire Foster, middle-class, middle-aged spouses with two small kids, neither offers any surprises here. Fey is basically doing Liz Lemon as a New Jersey realtor, while Carell’s character recalls the sweet dweeb he debuted in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, with none of Michael Scott’s underlying creepiness.
As for the plot of Date Night, it’s what they call an evergreen. Remove the references to flash drives and Fergie, and director Shawn Levy’s tale of overworked parents who need a little spice in their marriage would work as a vehicle for Chevy Chase and Goldie Hawn in 1978. (It even has a gratuitous, noisy car chase that could have been lifted straight from a film of that era.)
Naturally, when Phil and Claire seek out excitement — by fibbing their way into a table at a Manhattan hot spot called Claw — they get more than they bargained for. The no-show couple whose reservation they pinched turns out to be on the hit list of a mafioso (Ray Liotta), and soon his lackeys are gunning for the suburban pair. Many absurd, hackneyed twists and a handful of decent gags ensue.
The film’s laughs come less often from its script (by Josh Klausner, a veteran of the two last Shrek movies) than from its actors — and not just the two stars. A gaggle of good performers show up in supporting roles, including Mark Wahlberg as an eerily unflappable, always shirtless Jason Bourne type (who inspires much drooling in Claire); Mila Kunis and James Franco as the feckless young pair for whom our heroes have been mistaken; and William Fichtner as a way-too-smooth, crusading district attorney.
These cameos keep Date Night feeling like a ragtag, amiable gathering of funny people who enjoy each other’s company, rather than the cynical piece of action-comedy crap it actually is. And, at moments, when the silliness about car chases and strip clubs recedes, it actually becomes a movie about something real. In one scene, Fey’s character confesses that she fantasizes about being alone — about having “a day that doesn’t depend on how somebody else’s day went.”
In this midlife-crisis-comedy genre, usually dominated by glum, domesticated males in need of wild party action (see Hot Tub Time Machine), it’s nice to get another perspective. More importantly, though, when the Fosters dine out and amuse themselves by inventing personalities for the couples at surrounding tables, their improvised-sounding banter really clicks. A comic couple with a noncontrived reason to stay married: what a concept.