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If you find yourself watching Date Night this weekend, remember: it's OK to laugh. No, the movie isn't nearly as funny as any given episode of The Office or 30 Rock, and yes, the script and the direction do repeatedly insult the audience by assuming we can't get a joke or an emotional moment unless the entire film screeches to a halt to point it out. But there are good parts too, and a nice handful of funny lines that were doubtlessly ad-libbed by stars Tina Fey and Steve Carell. None of it makes up for the slapdash direction and moribund plotting, of course, but honestly, I was surprised to find anything here worthwhile at all.
Because, with the shining exception of The 40-Year Old Virgin, neither Fey nor Carell has really translated their TV comedic talents to leading film roles. Putting the two of them together as a couple in Date Night is inspired, and seems even more so because it's not some NBC cross-promotional thing (Date Night is a Fox film). And indeed, the chemistry between Fey and Carell, and the improvs and one-liners they play off of one another, are often the best parts of the movie. It's just a shame that neither Josh Klausner's script nor director Shawn Levy knew what to do with the added talent that the two main stars brought on board.
As for the plot, it's the classic mistaken identity caper that's been around since Hitchcock, and the specifics of Date Night seem taken straight out of 80s New York crime films-- crooked cops, angry drug dealers, mean streets, all that. Claire and Phil Foster are just trying to scam their way into a table at trendy restaurant Claw when they claim the reservation that's under the name Tripplehorn, but before Claire can finish her risotto they're hauled off by two thugs (Jimmi Simpson and Common) who demand that they hand over a USB drive, yada yada. Claire and Phil are spectacularly ill-equipped for getaways and scheming, in a pretty realistic way, so their bright ideas to get out of this mess take them to the depths of Central Park, a swanky pad inhabited by a permanently shirtless Mark Wahlberg, and eventually the East Village dump where the real Tripplehorns (James Franco and Mila Kunis) aren't particularly capable of sorting out the mess either.
A movie that incorporates this many ridiculous setups and car chases needs a farce-like timing, in which one crazy event spills over into another to lead to the truly insane conclusion (think Flirting With Disaster or, hell, Meet the Parents). But Date Night simply plods along from one setup to the next, expecting us to laugh every time Mark Wahlberg opens the door without a shirt, or covering up a genuinely funny Fey ad-lib with worthless plot development. The worst moment by far is when Claire and Phil steal a car to make a fast getaway, then pull over to spend five minutes working out their marital issues, issues that supposedly plague them constantly but that the audience was totally unaware of until that moment. All the mediocre comedy could have worked if it had built on itself toward a conclusion, but Levy's terrible sense of comedic timing frequently sucks out all the momentum the film had managed to build.
With less interesting actors in the leads Date Night would have been a merely mediocre movie, but the flashes of funny throughout indicate the comedic gem that could have been with better direction and writing. Cling closely to those few great moments, let yourself laugh without shame, and Date Night may have the power to suck you in after all. It's not the movie it could have been, but at its best moments, it'll do.