Saturday, April 10, 2010

"Date Night" (2010)

Director Shawn Levy is only known for making standard run-of-the-mill movies like both installments of "Night at the Museum," "The Pink Panther" and "Cheaper by the Dozen." It was smart of him, then, to let the two funniest people in America do the work in his latest movie, "Date Night." Steve Carell and Tina Fey play Phil and Claire Foster as they depart from their respective NBC office-bound shows, "The Office" and "30 Rock," to hit the big screen together. The reason this movie works so well is because of them and the way they interact as a boring, married couple. It's funny because we can believe it. They're both equally attractive, about the same age, fit well together and have a similar brand of humor that never ceases to surprise. And while the material doesn't allow them to be nearly as sharp as they are on TV, they make it funny nonetheless which is a testament to their comedic abilities. You could probably put them in any situation together, and it'd be funny because they are a riot to watch.

The Fosters are a New Jersey suburbanite family with normal jobs, a normal house and normal kids. Phil wears his nose strip to bed while Claire wears her mouth guard, but they barely have enough energy to get themselves to that point in their day. At a book club session, the Fosters learn that a married couple they know is getting a divorce, played briefly yet effectively by Mark Ruffalo and Kristen Wiig. Upon hearing this news, they begin to worry. Sure they call up the babysitter and go out on date nights, but they decide they need a night together that's more than just about going out to eat somewhere. Sprucing themselves up, they head out for a night in Manhattan and try to get into a fancy, upscale restaurant -- without a reservation. They are, of course, cast aside, but in the heat of the moment, they take a table for two under the name Tripplehorn. Little do they know that the Tripplehorns are caught up in some nasty business with thugs and corrupt cops.

What unfolds is sheer slapstick as the Fosters get chased deeper and deeper into seedy Manhattan nightlife. What makes it so hilarious through and through is the fact that they don't belong wrapped up in any of this. They're completely unfamiliar in this territory, and Carell and Fey play off each others' riffs and timing perfectly. They have a plan when it feels right, and they also freak out when it feels right. The best lines are when the two actors are clearly ad-libbing, which allows them and the movie to escape the otherwise stuffy writing. It becomes so engaging because we're engaged by the two leads who know exactly what they're doing, and regardless of whatever is happening, they just keep churning out the laughs.

The movie's surprisingly robust supporting cast is also put to good use with a handful of talented performers. James Franco and Mila Kunis play the real Tripplehorns, a slumming hipster couple whose scene with the Fosters is one of the high points. There's also a perpetually buff and shirtless Mark Wahlberg in a humorously self-mocking role. He's the security guru who helps the Fosters navigate their way in the city. Even Taraji P. Henson strikes a note as the police investigator trying to figure out how in the world the Fosters got themselves tangled up with the city's head mobster, Joe Miletto. This name is always said with an ominous undertone, and then shit gets serious when we realized he's played by Ray Liotta in another self-mocking role. Of course Liotta would be the mobster.

Yeah, the third act gets sluggish and the car chase could've been a bit shorter, but overall "Date Night" is zippy and clips along at a reasonable pace at only 88 minutes. And, you just really have to hand it to Tina Fey and Steve Carell because they carry this movie convincing us not only that they're funny but also that their characters are naturally that funny, too. And don't skimp out on the credits because you'll miss some great improv.

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