So Much for 'Date Night'

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The presence of Tina Fey and Steve Carell in the main roles may promise something more, since rather than being the usual mismatched, nice-looking pair of romantic comedy corn muffins, they are accomplished professional funny people. Especially on television. And that's part of the problem: "Date Night" sets these stars afloat in a busy and conventional story, hoping that their proven talents, or maybe their reputations, will keep the picture from sinking. It doesn't entirely, but treading water for 90 minutes is no great accomplishment. 
Though Ms. Fey shows occasional flashes of the smart, anxious sarcasm that drives Liz Lemon through the showbiz tumult of "30 Rock," and though you can't look at Mr. Carell's face without inferring the antic cluelessness of Michael Scott in "The Office," both performers are constrained by the drab formula demanded by long-form, big-screen entertainment. As Claire and Phil Foster, a real estate agent and an accountant with two kids and a house in New Jersey, Ms. Fey and Mr. Carell shoulder the laugh-killing burden of ordinary likability, which means that they can't be too smart, too witty or too weird.
The thing is, Carell proved he was more than Michael Scott in The 40-Year Old Virgin, where he played the exact opposite of Michael Scott and was still funny. It's sad that they couldn't make this work. It often seems the Hollywood doesn't suffer for acting talent, but decent writing, or rather moneyed people willing to get behind decent writing.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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