(by Dustin Putman
"Date Night" is that rare high-concept action-comedy that not only earns every one of its fairly consistent big laughs, but also provides a certain amount of pathos, too. Amidst the zany plot turns and one of the most surprisingly creative car chases ever put to film is a connective and universal reality that audiences will be able to identify with. This is no more the circumstance than in the relationship between its two lead characters, an overworked couple hoping to put some spice and excitement back into their marriage. Playing them, Steve Carell (2008's "Get Smart") and Tina Fey (2008's "Baby Mama") are about as perfect as an onscreen pairing can get, their impeccable improvisational skills matched only by their honesty as performers. Article continues below
Phil Foster (Steve Carell) is a tax consultant. Wife Claire (Tina Fey) is a realtor. Between their jobs, two young children, and all the other daily responsibilities that go into a day-to-day life, the two of them can barely muster up enough energy to go out by themselves once a week for dinner at a nearby steakhouse. When friends Haley (Kristen Wiig) and Brad (Mark Ruffalo) announce they are getting a divorce, no longer romantic partners so much as great roommates, it hits home for the Fosters. Have they, too, lost their spark? For their next date night, they raise the ante, getting dressed up and heading into Manhattan to dine at Claw, a chic, upscale seafood restaurant so snooty the hosts answer the phone with "You're welcome." Desperate for a table but without reservations, they decide to take that of the nowhere-to-be-found Tripplehorns. Before their meal is over, Phil and Claire are mistaken for the missing diners and running for their lives from a couple of thugs (Jimmi Simpson and Common) who want a flash drive with incriminating evidence exposing DA Frank Crenshaw's (William Fichtner) dirty dealings with the mob.
Director Shawn Levy hasn't always, or often, been reliable (his disreputable credits include 2003's "Cheaper by the Dozen," 2006's "The Pink Panther," and 2006's "Night at the Museum"), but he finally hits his first home run with "Date Night." While he keeps the plot and characters cooking and screenwriter Josh Klausner (2007's "Shrek the Third") charges forth with a stream of comic set-pieces, it is Steve Carell and Tina Fey who do most of the heavy lifting ensuring this isn't just some throwaway project. As Phil and Claire Foster, Carell and Fey are complete equals—they both know how to sell a gag or a one-liner, but they also know how to build and flesh out the people they are playing as authentic human beings rather than just stick-figure pawns going through the motions. The viewer instantly believes them as a married couple comfortable around one another and with their own personal little habits and rituals, and they also believe them when they face the state of their relationship head-on and begin to recapture the true love they share for each other. A late scene set at a diner goes above and beyond expectations in this regard and proves genuinely, adoringly romantic and touching. For the first time since perhaps 2005's "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," Carell exhibits an effortless appeal that finally answers why he is considered one of today's top comedic talents. Fey, meanwhile, is the whole package—hilarious, endearing, and unassumingly beautiful.
The bulk of "Date Night," however, is very much of the jocular persuasion. All of the scenes taking place at Claw superbly capture the stuck-up milieu of popular, overpriced, usually overhyped New York City eateries; one could describe the tone as satirical if it weren't so identical to the truth. The unpredictable pleasures of the aforementioned car chase won't be spoiled, but let it be known the sequence breathes new life into an ancient cinematic tradition. Another scene where Claire must pose as a stripper and Phil as her pimp in order to get close to crooked DA Crenshaw is priceless. Additionally, a desperate getaway attempt in a ridiculously slow-moving motorboat and the interludes involving Mark Wahlberg (2009's "The Lovely Bones") as a forever shirtless security specialist/playboy the Fosters go to for help are dynamite. Wahlberg is a terrifically good-humored sport unafraid to rib on his persona, and he does it with nary a wink. Sprinkle in two spot-on jokey references to Jeanne Tripplehorn and an encounter with the actual Tripplehorns (James Franco and Mila Kunis) that reveal even low-rent criminal couples have similar problems to the ones the Fosters face, and one has only scratched the surface of why the film works as well as it does.
"Date Night" reminds of 2009's sorely underrated "Did You Hear About the Morgans?" Their plots are formulaic, but they both team together likable, humorous co-stars (in the case of "Morgans," Hugh Grant and Sarah Jessica Parker) in a part-broad/part-romantic/part-fish-out-of-water comedy with thriller undercurrents and let them go to town on a wickedly witty and sincere script. The trajectory of the narrative, of course, is nothing new in either movie, but it doesn't matter. Part of the joy is in getting to the happy ending, and the other half is in enjoying the ride. In "Date Night," all of the business involving corrupt cops and mob bosses is just an excuse to send Claire and Phil on a wild, frightening, exhilarating, unforgettable night-long adventure in the Big Apple. They certainly get that, and, in return, the viewer receives what is easily the brightest and smartest comedy so far this year.