A Nice 'Night' Out
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
After the success of the "Night at the Museum" films, director Shawn Levy could have kept pumping out special-effects-heavy, family-friendly comedy-fantasy films. The fact that he chose to make "Date Night," a smaller, high-concept film that ultimately succeeds as much as it does on the strength of leads Steve Carell and Tina Fey, represents a small victory for grown-up moviegoers everywhere. "Date Night" is not exactly "Scenes From a Marriage" (it's more a hybrid of "North by Northwest," "The Out-of-Towners" and "Adventures in Babysitting"), and yet, with Carell and Fey delivering both raucous comedy and real characters, "Date Night" is surprisingly smart, funny and sweet.
Carell and Fey are Phil and Claire Foster, parents with a stable, loving marriage full of pleasures and discontents, regularity and routine. One "date night," at the steakhouse they always go to on date night, they contemplate the impending separation of their friends and recognize that as their peers complain of stagnation and staleness ("We're not even a couple anymore," Phil's friend notes. "We're like excellent roommates"), they might be fairly well along the same track.
And so they both try to up the ante. "I want tonight to be different," Claire notes, forgetting the adage about being careful what you wish for. Driving into Manhattan, they try to get a seat at the hot restaurant of the moment; thwarted, dejected at the bar, when the hostess goes past calling out, "Tripplehorn, party of two," Phil decides to pose as the Tripplehorns and take their table. Of course, posing as the Tripplehorns comes with more than just a great seat, as Phil and Claire find out when two thugs drag them to the alley and demand at gunpoint that Phil and Claire hand over a flash drive full of documents the Tripplehorns have been using as part of a blackmail plot.
Too many films to name have offered that running for your lives may be the ultimate form of couples counseling, and too many other films have revolved around the plot kernel that nudges "Date Night" into motion. But "Date Night" is a film in which innovation and originality are less important than chemistry and execution, and Fey and Carell put nice spins and curves on Josh Klausner's script. Both Fey and Carell started their careers in improv comedy, and they bring this to bear playing the Fosters, who are very bad improvisers, as they try to talk their way into restaurants and out of mortal peril.
But while "Date Night" has well-honed comedy, from broad slapstick to subtle circular gags, brief goofy cameos and throwaway one-liners, what makes it more than just chases interrupted by punch lines is the fact that Levy, Fey, Carell and Klausner have taken the time to make the Fosters' marriage real and complex. "Date Night" surrounds Phil and Claire's marriage with jokes, situations, complications and chaos, but it is always a real marriage, full of small victories and minor discontents, compatibility and conflict.
At one point, Phil and Claire, exhausted, adrenal glands spent, talk really honestly about fantasies and desires. It is more than just a funny bit of dialogue; it's a Mars-and-Venus, mother-and-husband moment of insight that is more, not less, funny because it is true. Carell has a talent, proven on "The Office" and in "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," for playing the blowhard buffoon, but that's always tempered by an intrinsic decency and goodness. Fey, as seen on "Saturday Night Live" and "30 Rock," can play the frazzled neurotic to perfection, but that's always tempered by a certain warmth and kindness. Carell and Fey bring their shiny surface comedy personas to "Date Night," but they also bring richer depths, too. And while it is hard to believe many of the situations the Fosters wind up in, it is never hard to believe in the Fosters.
Levy keeps things brisk: the film moves swiftly, the cameos are short and sweet, the plot skips lightly from scene to scene. An action-comedy car chase feels like a bit much, but it is never so overdone as to overwhelm the film around it. "Date Night" is blatantly constructed as a setting for Carell and Fey to shine out from, but it's surprising how well-constructed that setting is, and how even as they snap out comedy sparks and light, Fey and Carell actually give off a surprising amount of real warmth.
James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.