Sometimes stunt casting really can pay off. Steve Carell and Tina Fey are thoroughly believable - endearing, even - as a happily married couple fighting off a bout of the midlife blues in Date Night. The pairing of the television comedy titans may seem like a gimmick, but Carell and Fey genuinely seem to like each other, and they bounce off each other with the natural chemistry of ... well, an old married couple.
The early scenes in Date Night, which depict the day-to-day routine of Phil (Carell) and Claire Foster (Fey) as they juggle careers with raising their two adorably boisterous kids in suburban New Jersey, should be all boring set-up. But some of the funniest stuff in the film comes out of that exposition. Carell and Fey play their characters completely straight, but they inject great observational humor into their depiction of an ordinary couple leading ordinary lives: There's a considerable ring of truth to the look on Fey's face when it's time to get up in the morning, or the way Carell collapses on the couch after arriving home from work, begging his kids for just a couple of minutes before he plays Lego wars with them.
But once the guns come out, and the car crashes begin, Date Night loses the funny. The movie was directed by Shawn Levy, whose previous work (Night at the Museum, The Pink Panther, Cheaper By the Dozen) could be used by Webster's to illustrate the definition of the term "hack for hire," and the script is credited to Josh Klausner, who previously wrote the soul-crushing Shrek the Third.
Like What's Up Doc?, Foul Play and Into the Night, Date Night is a hybrid of romantic comedy and action picture built around some flimsy instance of mistaken identity. The film depends on the fact that Phil and Claire do not do the logical thing when thugs start chasing them up and down Manhattan after they steal someone else's reservation at a trendy restaurant. But the actors have already shown us how smart and relatable their characters are, so you can't ever buy into the premise.
You suffer through the dull contrivances of Date Night for the scenes in which Carell and Fey are given room to riff and to do their thing. Fortunately, there are a lot of such moments (the blooper reel that plays over the end credits implies the film's biggest laughs were all improvised). There's a great running gag involving the Fosters' repeated visits to the bachelor pad of an ex-super spy (Mark Wahlberg) who never seems to have a shirt on, as well as a terrific scene in which the couple breaks into the apartment of two hoodlums (James Franco and Mila Kunis) who don't appreciate being held at gunpoint by a pair of suburbanites.
Date Night is littered with funny moments - it's a lot more amusing than the trailer suggests - but the movie must eventually surrender to its irrelevant plot and Levy's impersonal direction, and you leave the theater satisfied yet strangely displeased. That's what happens when good actors are stranded in a lame movie that is not worthy of their talents. Carell and Fey deserve better material: Here's hoping they get another chance to work together soon.
Date Night (**1/2 out of ****) opens Friday March 9 at South Florida theaters.