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Date Night

A Night to Forget

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars.

Steve Carell and Tina Fey anchor two of NBC’s most critically acclaimed series, The Office and 30 Rock, respectively. Someone, somewhere at 20th Century Fox decided that pairing Carell and Fey in a film was a sure path to box-office success. That same someone forgot about two minor components typically necessary to box-office success: a semi-original screenplay and non-pedestrian direction.

Filmed during the summer hiatus between television seasons, Carell and Fey appear as co-leads in Date Night, a lackluster, unengaging “comedy” that fails to use their talents as actors and comedians (neither Carell nor Fey contributed to the script).

Date Night centers on an upper-middle-class couple, Phil (Steve Carell) and Claire Foster (Tina Fey). He’s an accountant. She’s a real estate agent. They have two rambunctious children and own a own a spacious house in the New Jersey suburbs, but the romance has disappeared from their harried, hurried marital existence.

To counter the slow downward slide toward a seemingly inevitable divorce or a non-romantic relationship, Phil suggests they venture into Manhattan for a date night. They leave their kids in the hands of their next-door neighbor and babysitter, Katy (Leighton Meester), and head out.

Phil and Claire’s restaurant of choice, Claw, serves New York’s richest, youngest, and most obnoxious clientele. They still want to go, of course. They arrive too late to get in without a reservation, but when a couple named the Tripplehorns doesn’t show up, Phil and Claire take their spot. Before they can actually eat anything, two men, Armstrong (Jimmi Simpson) and Collins (Common), forcefully invite them aside. The men want something the real Tripplehorns have stolen from their employer and refuse to believe Phil and Claire’s mistaken identity story.

Phil and Claire manage to shake off Armstrong and Collins. Desperate, they turn to one of Claire’s former clients, Holbrooke Grant (a perpetually shirtless Mark Wahlberg), a wealthy security expert, for help in tracking down the real Tripplehorns and extricating themselves from an increasingly messy situation. Date Night limps through several predictable complications and action-oriented set pieces, each one as unimaginatively staged as the last (and shot on cheap looking HD video that results in murky visuals and motion blurs anytime a character moves onscreen).

Directed by Shawn Levy (Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, , The Pink Panther, Just Married) from a screenplay written by Josh Klausner (Shrek the Third), Date Night is a mash-up of far superior films, including Alfred Hitchcock’s Northwest by Northwest (mistaken identity, double-chase formula), Martin Scorsese’s After Hours (the city as urban nightmare) and Peter Weir’s Witness (a plot element better left unspoiled), updated and modernized to reflect Levy and Klaussner’ avoidance strategy to filmmaking.

Whatever influences or homage’s Levy and Klausner wanted to make, however, has little relevance to Date Night’s real problem. It’s simply not funny. The humor, sometimes verbal, sometimes physical, is over-obvious, conventionally safe, and with the exception of three or four bits (clocking in roughly every 22.5 minutes), unfunny. Levy and Klausner failed to fully exploit the premise for its comedic potential, instead preferring the trite and true to the original and challenging. And when that failed, they inserted cameos by well-known performers (e.g., Mark Ruffalo, Kristen Wiig, Mila Kunis, James Franco) to keep audiences marginally alert.

Carell and Fey were obviously brought together for Date Night to draw their respective television audiences to multiplexes this weekend and beyond (which may happen). Talented performers both, they’re easily convincing as a long-married couple in a relationship rut, but they’re repeatedly let down by Klausner’s weak, uninspired script and Levy’s uninspired direction. Couples looking for a night out, romantic or otherwise, will do better to seek their comedic entertainment.