'Date Night': Tina Fey and Steve Carell's Lost Chance

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20th Century Fox


If Hollywood is to be believed, then there's nothing quite like a close brush with death to revive a flagging marriage. That's the idea behind Date Night, the new action comedy starring Tina Fey and Steve Carell. It's a movie blessed with a premise so singular—you might say inevitable—that a plot summary hardly seems necessary. If you've seen the poster (Fey and Carell, looking disheveled in their date night finery), you know what happens.

Phil and Claire Foster are married parents of two living in suburban New Jersey. Phil is a tax accountant who works for a firm with the soul-deadening name of "New Jersey Tax Consultants." Claire is a real estate agent trying—but failing—to unload $300,000 houses that used to go for $1.8 million. Their marriage is happy but stagnant. Sex is infrequent and routine ("Keep it uptown," Claire tells Phil), and their weekly "date night" routine of potato skins and salmon at the Teaneck Tavern is more arduous than romantic.

Still, the Fosters are devoted to one another. Phil even participates in Claire's tedious book club, reading what sounds like a terrible rip-off of The Red Tent. Spooked by the impending divorce of fellow book clubbers Haley (Kristen Wiig) and Brad (Mark Ruffalo), Claire decides to up the ante at their next date night. She puts on her best dress and push-up bra, and it works: Phil decides to take her "Claw," a trendy seafood restaurant in the city. Naturally, a case of mistaken identity ensues, and the Fosters are chased across New York by a team of crooked cops, and in the process, fall in love all over again. Think of it as the less accomplished lovechild of North by Northwest and The Out of Towners.

To a large extent, the predictability of Date Night is a result of its popular stars. Their sitcoms—The Office and 30 Rock—air back-to-back on NBC, so it seems hard to believe they haven't actually co-starred in a movie before. Less tangibly, they share a comic sensibility that stems from their training at Second City, the storied Chicago improv theater. But more important than their professional affiliations is what both performers have come to represent: that is, the lovable loser. Fey is the acerbic single woman who can never quite get her love life or diet in order, and whose biting wit compensates for her many insecurities; Carell is the sweet, vulnerable guy with a barely sublimated manic streak.

Yet in crucial ways, Date Night represents a departure for both its leads—especially Fey. Whether or not 30 Rock is in a creative slump is subject to debate, but it's hard to deny that Fey seems to have outgrown her television alter ego, Liz Lemon. There's a growing chorus of critics—myself included—who feel that the relentless jokes about Liz's (nonexistent) weight problem, inability to keep a man, and general haplessness are less convincing and, more importantly, less funny than they once were.

This season, Liz has been subjected to masochistic levels of romantic humiliation, culminating in a recent episode where her beloved ex, Floyd, announced his engagement on the Today Show. Despite her high-powered job, Liz is a perpetual adolescent who likes Cheesy Blasters and cupcake pajamas. To date, Fey's few big-screen performances haven't strayed far much from this path. In Mean Girls, she played a doughnut-addicted divorcee and math teacher whose earnestness makes her a sitting target for the Plastics; in Baby Mama, she's a tightly wound career woman who forms an unlikely bond with her raunchy surrogate.

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Meredith Blake is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. She is  a contributor to The L.A. Times and The Book Bench, The New Yorker's literary blog

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