They’re good for a couple of laughs: Fey, Carell go on the run in ‘Date Night’
On their respective NBC shows — “30 Rock’’ for her, “The Office’’ for him — Tina Fey and Steve Carell are two sides of the same coin. Their comedy depends on weathering humiliation. Their co-workers don’t take them seriously as managers of people or hormones. Fey’s Liz Lemon has had to play dumb so long she might actually believe it. Carell’s Michael Scott actually is dumb. The joke is always against them.
I’ve always wondered why the cross-promotional minds at NBC haven’t figured out a way to get Liz and Michael together for an evening. It would go hilariously bad. “Date Night’’ — a new movie that casts Fey and Carell as, of all things, long-married parents in suburban New Jersey — is not what I had in mind. There are moments, few of them funny. Here’s some advice for screenwriters using “Romantic Comedy for Dummies’’ to shake up the genre: Skip the chapter on couples on the run.
“Date Night’’ is another of those movies that jams the comedy of remarriage (or, in this case, the alleged comedy of rekindling) with the chase thriller. In the last five months, Sarah Jessica Parker, Hugh Grant, Gerard Butler, and Jennifer Aniston have all tried a formula that worked only when Goldie Hawn and Chevy Chase were doing the running — and almost not even then. Both romantic comedies and thrillers live by their screenwriting. A decent version of either is hard to come by. An entertaining combination of the two is tantamount to ambidexterity.
At this point, I would settle for a little monodexterousness. “Date Night’’ comes close, then gives up in pursuit of a more obviously commercial movie. Fey and Carrel play the Fosters, who decide to upend their routine night out with a spontaneous trip to Manhattan, where they pretend to be another couple to get a table at a hot restaurant. It’s complicated, but the actual couple is mixed up with the mob.
There’s promise right up to the moment the Fosters toast with empty glasses — an omen of terrible luck. After a close-up of the clinking glasses, we’re dragged into the movie’s Twilight Zone. The Fosters are chased all over Lower Manhattan by gun-toting automatons who can’t seem to hit their targets even when they’re in a boat 15 feet away. We learn a scene or two later that they’re police detectives, but there’s no joke about how taxpayers can’t even afford decent crooked cops. (One of them is played by the rapper Common, an insinuating presence and promising actor who’s a goony blank here.)
“Date Night’’ manages to live down to its store-brand title. But it might have worked as a serious comedy about two people trying to resex their marriage and air their mounting grievances. There are only ribald jokes at the hapless Fosters’ expense. (The only thing that scares American movies more than sex is sex between married people.)
The filmmakers don’t care about the nuances of marriage. And they’re not obligated to care, but their alternative priorities — car crashes, shootouts, “Cannonball Run’’ pileups, and city-government scandals — are like something out of a “Police Academy’’ sequel. The chase does turn up blips of laughter with a shirtless Mark Wahlberg and a couple played by a shamelessly skuzzy James Franco and Mila Kunis (Mark Ruffalo, Kristen Wiig, Taraji P. Henson, Leighton Meester, and Ray Liotta also have small, empty parts).
Fey and Carell are at their best when they break the character and flash some satirical leg, making fun of restaurants or strip clubs or celebrity. It’s amazing how these two famous people are still convincingly disdainful of fame’s trappings and observant of certain annoyances and everyday realities. Lousy movies, of course, are some of those annoying realities. And for now they’re as doomed to star in them as we are to watch them.