Movie Review: Date Night

I don’t know why, but there seem to be a lot of these kinds of movies lately. This summer we have Killers and Knight and Day, and earlier this spring we had The Bounty Hunter. Five years ago Mr. and Mrs. Smith gave us sexy action heroes bogged down in humdrum relationship doldrums; now we have a small fleet of movies launching everyday folk into the world of the sexy action hero. As escapist entertainment goes, this is a pretty pure hit.

I’ll call it now: Date Night is better than its contemporaries can hope to be. It’s funny, inventive, warm and oddly authentic. The Bounty Hunter has already proven itself a dog and the other two seem stamped from the same factory: mysterious man lures everyday (blonde) woman into action hijinx, causing her to shriek a lot. Lol!

No contest.

The premise: Phil and Claire Foster are a successful (if bored) married couple with two cute kids and the lack of free time two cute kids will give you. Even their date nights are stale, a familiar rehearsal in the same restaurant with the same food one night a week.

They break up their routine one night with a trip into the city to check out a fancy new restaurant, and after taking someone else’s reservation they get sucked into a world of crooked cops, mobsters and suave super-spies. The plot would make a bit more sense if anyone thought it mattered enough to develop it; I’m thankful that everyone knew it didn’t warrant the attention.

Miraculously, it works. Fey and Carrell are television comedy royalty, but their forays into feature filmmaking have been less successful. After The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Steve Carrell’s mostly found himself headlining a lot of clunkers; only Get Smart rises above the crowd by being halfway competent. It’s no small coincidence that his wins Tina Fey’s been pickier about her work, but her record is equally spotty. (Baby Mama, while funny, should have been far funnier.)

But here they’ve found their groove. Both come from stage and improv work, so while they may be comfortable with the absurd, their comedy is best developed in human dimensions. Yes, for instance, they do get involved in a crazy car chase. But it’s less about what’s happening and more about how they’re reacting to it. Fey and Carrell’s chemistry is the warm fondness you come to associate with longtime couples, and is often far harder to imitate than the sparks of fresh infatuation.

A few notable supporting characters round out the cast and prevent the slim premise from dragging. Most notable are James Franco and Mila Kunis, as the dirtbag couple whose reservation the Fosters swipe. (And boy, the Fosters get on end of grief for that.) William Fichtner is a riot for the five minutes he’s on screen. Mark Wahlberg’s torso is also very funny.

Give credit to director Shawn Levy and writer Josh Klausner for understanding why people like Steve Carrell and Tina Fey: under pressure they may persevere, but they never lose their essential goofiness or love for absurdity. The competition tries to sell us tabloid-bait stars like Jennifer Aniston, Katherine Heigl and Cameron Diaz as everyday folks; Date Night doesn’t have to sell us anything. We already believe it.

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