Steve Carell and Tina Fey are the king and queen of the Thursday-night sitcom prom. Both are smart and helplessly funny, and both came up through Second City improv. About fifteen minutes into Date Night, I began to wish Carell and Fey had been allowed to improvise the whole thing. As it is, this tangled-web contraption — with the stars as a married couple mistaken for another couple possessing an incriminating flash drive — makes for a painless, fast (88 minutes!) sit. It never scales, or even attempts, the heights of smart-stupid lunacy Carell and Fey have hit on The Office and 30 Rock. Liz Lemon would never be in Date Night, but Jenna Maroney might.
Every move Carell and Fey make digs them deeper into trouble, until finally they’re doing their idea of an erotic dance for the benefit of an erstwhile Dark Knight actor. The dance is mildly amusing, their audience’s incongruously impressed response somewhat more so; in truth, though, the scene peaks when Tina Fey emerges from the strippers’ dressing room looking like a cross between Sigourney Weaver in Galaxy Quest and Megan Fox in the forthcoming Jonah Hex. Fey is a brunette right down to her soul, so when she goes blonde — as she also did on the recent Saturday Night Live episode meant to cash in on Date Night — the wrongness is epically comic.
This is a PG-13 movie, so there’s only so much wildness the situation can unleash in this milquetoast suburban-Jersey couple. The night-world darkness of After Hours, Into the Night and Something Wild is beyond the goals of the script; it’s closer to The Out-of-Towners. We get gunplay, a car chase and soft hints of decadence (the car chase is barely redeemed by the hysterics of J.B. Smoove as a cabbie). Date Night offers a cameo every other reel, none of which I want to spoil, though fans of Attack of the Show’s often-hilarious Olivia Munn should dial down their expectations — she’s wasted here as a snooty restaurant hostess. Mark Wahlberg turns up as a security specialist who helps the couple (goes well above and beyond, I would say), and he provided me with my only real laugh: “Was that supposed to be me or Fat Albert?”
Unpretentious and unambitious, Date Night will play fine on Comedy Central in a couple of years. Carell and Fey aren’t really asked to venture outside their comfort zones; even when pole-dancing, they’re the same uptight nerds they started out as. The movie passes the time, but what a misuse of resources! Carell and Fey have an easy rapport, and I’d like to see them in a run of funnier films, and perhaps even write the scripts together; now that their first collaboration has yielded a solid number-one hit, maybe the studios will grant them more freedom next time. Then again, this is the same Hollywood that hasn’t noticed how funny Olivia Munn is.