A shining example of a formula film that’s much funnier than it should be thanks to the talent of the key players, Date Night may not be the comedy classic that Steve Carell and Tina Fey fans were hoping for, but it’s still a brisk, highly enjoyable romp that’s elevated by some inspired improvisation and convincing chemistry between the two leads. Toss in a few memorable supporting performances and a screenplay written by someone who genuinely has a grasp on the mechanics of marriage, and you’ve got all the ingredients for a good time at the movies.
Phil (Carell) and Claire Foster (Fey) may not win the prize for most unpredictable couple on the block, but they’re happily married, devoted parents. When their best friends break the news that they’re getting divorced, Phil and Claire both realize that a break from their usual patterns may be just the thing to add a little spice to their own relationship. Dressing up for a night on the town, they hit up the hottest new seafood restaurant in Manhattan and quickly realize they should have made a reservation. When the hostess calls the name of another couple who fail to make their presence known, Phil claims the seats and dinner is served. Before the meal is over, however, two thugs accost the couple at their table and ask them to exit the restaurant for a talk. It seems that the couple whose reservation Phil and Claire stole were attempting to blackmail the city’s most powerful crime boss, and after narrowly escaping a hail of gunfire, the terrified suburbanites must race to find the evidence that will clear their names.
Date Night is one of those comedies that you see the commercials for on television and instantly assume will be a generic mess despite the terrific cast. And with any other actors in the lead, this may well have been the case. Fortunately, everyone involved in the production realized the key to making Date Night a success was to keep things simple, give the two talented leads enough space to find what makes each scene work, and allow them to have a little fun with it. That said, the scripted scenes in which Phil and Claire bond over dinner and work though some of their minor marriage issues do display an honesty that gives the characters genuine depth, and permits the audience to see just how much they really matter to one another.
But there’s no point in having Carell and Fey as your leads if you don’t populate the rest of the cast with actors they can riff with, and co-stars Mark Wahlberg and James Franco in particular shine in their brief yet invigorating supporting roles as a high-tech security specialist and a small-time con artist, respectively. It’s their performances that help to divert attention away from Shawn Levy’s flaccid direction (even a wild car chase though the streets of Manhattan fails to generate much energy despite the best efforts of editor Dean Zimmerman) and ensure that some of the smallest scenes in Date Night get some of the biggest laughs. So while few would likely argue that Date Night is the kind of comedy that people will be quoting for years to come, those in search of a few hearty laughs are likely to find them in this playful, refreshingly lean tale of mistaken identities.
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