Breaking free from routine: that’s all the loving but bored Phil and Claire Foster want to do on their Date Night. Tired of “enjoying potato skins and salmon” every weekend at the neighborhood pub, Phil (Steve Carell) wants to treat his wife Claire (Tina Fey) to something special. The movie itself tries to break the rut that movies in its genre so typically end up in, but winds up providing some rehashed jokes and situations. The movie’s saving grace is the pairing of Fey and Carell, who are such brilliant improvisers and work so well as a team that the film becomes enjoyable and at times absolutely hilarious. The outtakes during the end credits showcase the wonderful film that could’ve been had director Shawn Levy let the two improvise more. As it stands, though, Date Night is a fine but formulaic film that leaves the audience wondering what happened to what have been a hilarious movie.
Phil and Claire Foster live in a tiny New Jersey town in a cozy house with two kids. They seem to be happy enough, but that’s not, well, enough for them when they find out their best friends (a brief but wonderful Kristin Wiig and Mark Ruffalo) are headed for divorce. Both Phil and Claire take a good hard look at their life and realize how drab it all is: Phil always leaves the drawers open, Claire never lets Phil help her with anything, and they always go to the same restaurant for “date night” and order the same meal. They decide on a whim to head into Manhattan for a “sexy change” as Phil puts it, leaving the kids with the babysitter (a conniving Leighton Meester). As everyone who has seen the trailer knows, once at the restaurant, the Fosters steal someone else’s reservation, crying out “We are the Triplehorns!” The rest of the movie follows them as they are consistently mistaken for the mysterious Triplehorns (the real ones played by James Franco and Mila Kunis, irresistibly hilarious together). Along the way, they outwit thugs, pose as prostitutes, and steal cars. It leads them into contact with a perplexed detective (Taraji P. Henson, barely there), a shirtless security expert (Mark Wahlberg, having the most fun he’s had in a while spoofing himself here), and two bumbling thugs (Common and Jimmi Simpson).
The best moments of Date Night are the precious few in which Levy lets his lead actors improvise, allowing them to escape the trite, goofy dialogue that bogs them down throughout the rest of the film. While masquerading as a stripper, Claire is forced to pole dance alongside Carell, who pretends to be her “pimp daddy, man, so zip your face!” The following scene, in which the two awkwardly and charmingly gyrate their middle-aged bodies, is laugh out loud funny, accompanied by a gross-out moment from Carell that elicited shrieks of laughter from the audience. Fey and Carell are at their best in both dinner scenes, where they play “what’s their story?” about other couples sitting nearby. Fey riffs on her hilarious 30 Rock lines when she pretends to be a girl clearly bored on her date at the next table, saying nasally, “That’s really interesting, but I have to go home and fart into a box.” Their zingers come out of left field and are clearly made up on the spot, making them that much funnier.
As far as the film’s shortcomings are concerned, Date Night is just another tired movie about a tired couple that wants to reignite some sparks in their tired relationship. The only problem is, writer Josh Klausner doesn’t bring anything new to the table. At its worst, the script is a hackneyed knock-off of Scorcese’s After Hours. He lazily falls back on a commonly used line that these days is meant to be funny – the head swivel and the sarcastic “Really? Really?” Instead of giving these two comic geniuses something good to work with, he takes the easy way out and has them make weird faces at each other. It doesn’t work.
Inevitably the two will be paired up again in the future, as their work in this film together proves that they are some of the wittiest, most comically genius actors of their age. Next time, let Fey and Carell write their own scripts. As they have proven time and time again (Fey with Mean Girls and 30 Rock, Carell with The 40-Year-Old Virgin) they are funny. If only Date Night had been filled with more lines like “They stabbed a chicken nugget with a Sharpie! These are not good people.” That’s the kind of movie worth watching. 2 stars.