April 9, 2010 in Features

Great from the neck up

Colin Covert Minneapolis Star Tribune
 
20th Century Fox photo

From left, Tina Fey, Steve Carell and Mark Wahlberg in “Date Night.” 20th Century Fox
(Full-size photo)

Were it not for the amiable chemistry between its stars, there would be no reason to see “Date Night.”

It’s still more a smiler than a laugher, but without Steve Carell and Tina Fey, this routine mistaken-identity comedy would be as boring as the drab suburban couple they play.

Phil and Claire Foster live in a state of quiet desperation: New Jersey. He’s a tax accountant, she’s a real-estate agent, and their life is mind-numbingly routine.

They are so exhausted from work and wrangling their over-energetic kids that their love life is a fading memory. Their scheduled “fun” activities include a tedious book club and date night at a steak joint where the waiter knows them by name.

When they impulsively head off to a hot Tribeca restaurant and impersonate a couple of no-shows who had a reservation, they’re swept up into a whirligig of comedy-thriller shenanigans.

On the run from a pair of gunmen (rapper Common and Jimi Simpson), they cross paths with a shrewd police detective (Oscar nominee Taraji P. Henson), a menacing mobster (Ray Liotta, surprise, surprise) and a couple of lowlife grifters (James Franco and Mila Kunis) whose relationship problems sound eerily like the Fosters.

Mark Wahlberg contributes a self-mocking flashback to his days as a Calvin Klein underwear model, playing a former client of Claire’s with a background in military security who takes a break from his own lusty date night to give the couple a hand.

When he appears bare-chested at his apartment door, Fey’s look of thinly veiled desire and Carell’s mortification are funnier than the script’s half-baked punchlines.

“Date Night” is directed by Shawn Levy, whose “Cheaper by the Dozen,” “The Pink Panther” and the “Night at the Museum” movies prove how lucrative inoffensive mediocrity can be.

He doesn’t know how to use his performers to their best advantage. Carell and Fey are funny with their faces, not their bodies, and in physical comedy scenes where they’re supposed to be funny-awkward, they’re awkward-awkward.

A pole dancing scene in a strip club and a roll on the grass on their suburban doorstep are painful to behold. Fey looks as if half her concentration is going toward not toppling out of her high heels.

They’re great in close-ups, though, with years of TV practice. They can telegraph anxiety, humiliation and exasperated affection in a glance, giving the film a boost even Levy can’t deflate.

“Date Night” does have one standout sequence of knockabout comedy: There’s an extended scene of Fey and Carell racing through the streets in a pair of cars that have been mashed together grille to grille in a head-on collision.

They shout directions at each other while pounding on the accelerator, slamming the brakes and steering in opposing directions.

It’s a pretty good visual image for marriage, if you ask me.


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