The weirdest thing happened to me today. It’s something that hasn’t happened for months, maybe longer. I honestly don’t even remember the last time it happened. It was bizarre. I was sitting in a movie theater, watching a studio comedy, and I was completely overcome by this unfamiliar sensation. I think it might have been happiness. I’m not sure, exactly, since it’s been such a long time since I felt anything akin to that in a multiplex. But that odd sensation was accompanied by laughter. Real laughter. I laughed. Out loud. More than once. And it wasn’t even at stuff I’d already seen in the trailers. When I left the theater, I wasn’t hit by a wave of disappointment. I was in this oddly pleasant mood. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I briefly considered running back into the theater and watching The Last Song again just so I could regain my equilibrium. All this smiling is giving me a miserable fucking headache.
Not that director Shawn Levy (Night at the Museum, Pink Panther) had anything to do with it (he can eat my poo). Or the terrible script from Josh Klausner (Shrek the Third). No. Date Night succeeds despite them. It’s the rare movie where the two leads — Steve Carell and Tina Fey — actually elevate the sorry material and the bland execution over a level of tolerable and into outright pleasantness. If you like Carell and Fey, chances are, you’ll like Date Night. It’s basically the pilot to a really solid action-comedy series on Thursday night NBC — completely frivolous, kind of dumb but with an edge of intelligence, and insanely watchable.
It’s actually an odd combination, those two. Neither looks like the married type. And certainly you can’t sell me on Tina Fey being a mother (Steve Carell revealed a tenderly father side in Dan in Real Life, and I could see him settling into a Steve Martin 2.0 career late in life, whether we like it or not). But it’s the fact that both Fey and Carell look so completely out of place in an action-comedy that actually works for the movie. They’re supposed to look like an awkward, boring suburban New Jersey couple, and though they don’t completely pull that off, they appear sufficiently out of place in a movie like this to make it work for them.
Also, they’re funny people. And likable. They have impeccable comic timing, and they riff off of each other brilliantly. It’s Liz Lemon minus the big-city elitism and Michael Scott without the abrasive obnoxiousness or the complete lack of self-awareness. I’m fairly convinced the movie wouldn’t have worked with any other set of cast members. But when Carell and Fey try to negotiate a stripper pole, it’s exactly what you’d expect: Awkwardly amusing. Great comedic chemistry, but terrible romantic chemistry. Their occasional stab at romance just feels … icky. Like Steve Carell and Tina Fey making out. But everything else is goddamn comic gold.
Phil and Claire Foster (Carell and Fey) are typical of suburban couples: He’s a tax attorney, she’s a real-estate broker. They go to work. They come home. They make dinner. They clean up. And it takes all the effort in their beings to get their children to sleep each night. Sometimes they have book club. They also have a weekly date night, which they begrudgingly attend at some local Bonanza or something, where they dine on the same meals and navigate the same conversations.
When they discover that a couple they are close with (Kristen Wiig and (the adorable) Mark Ruffalo) are about to split because they realize they’ve become little more than really great roommates, Phil and Claire decide to do the unthinkable: Drive 20 minutes into the city and dine at a super-fancy restaurant just to break the monotony of their married lives. Unable to secure a table, they pose as another couple — the Tripplehorns — who failed to show. After dinner and drinks, a misunderstanding ensues: They’re mistaken for the real Tripplehorns, who have a flash drive that the criminal element is trying to track down, and the cops — Common and Jimmi Simpson — are in the criminal element’s pocket. Wackiness ensues. Said wackiness also incorporates a few pretty great cameos, including Mark Wahlberg as a shirtless private security guy (shirtless guy is the best role Wahlberg could ask for) and James Franco and Mila Kunis as the actual Tripplehorns, a couple of bickering burn-outs.
I’d be hard pressed to call Date Night anything but completely silly and predictable. But it’s pleasantly predictable: It’s a nicely-paced comfort movie for very demographic depicted in the film — content married couples looking for a couple of hours of cute escapism. It’s a fun movie; a little screwball, and wicked entertaining. But if you miss it, don’t worry: It’s exactly the kind of film made for cable television, where it’ll be playing on a loop for years to come.