'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.

In Date Night, the Liz Lemon hallmarks remain intact: there's the dead-armed walk of a woman who's still bashful about her enviable physique, and the same fondness for absurd quips like "Zip your vagina." But unlike Upper West Side spinster Liz Lemon, Claire Foster is a suburban mother. Liz is overworked, exhausted and sick of being alone; Claire is overworked, exhausted, and desperate for some alone time. Sure, we've all seen Fey in those American Express ads with her adorable daughter, but the image of her as a single woman is a stubborn one, and the shift towards a maternal role is more revolutionary than you might think. Watching Fey's character scold her children, rather than a roomful of immature writers, is disarming at first. "Look, there's Tina Fey, playing a mother!" We're not used to seeing her in such a domestic milieu, but after the initial discomfort, our brains adjust and stop thinking about it—like reading subtitles.

Unlike Fey, Carell already has a proven track record in feature film, which may be why his personality isn't automatically conflated with that of Michael Scott's. Like Liz Lemon, Michael Scott is unhappily single and garners little respect from his underlings; unlike Liz Lemon, it's easy to see why. He is—to use the Yiddish—a putz, more interested in being liked than being respected. In contrast, Carell's feature film persona is eminently more likable. At least on a superficial level, each of his roles has been dramatically different from the last. He's played a gay, suicidal Proust scholar (Little Miss Sunshine); a widower who falls for his brother's girlfriend (Dan in Real Life); and a 40-year old virgin (duh). Despite such apparent range, Carell brings the same essence to each role, combining shyness and fundamental decency with a darker, more melancholy side. Though they're never really scary—except maybe in Anchorman—Carell's characters are perpetually on the brink. Phil is Carell with the edges all worn off; he's driven to hysterics by the absurdity of his circumstances, not by some deeply-rooted ennui.

As encouraging as it is to see Fey and Carell branching out into more mature roles, neither actor is able to rise above the clumsy material in Date Night. Director Shawn Levy (Just Married, Night at the Museum) has a congenital weakness for big budget clamor, and an ability to run an amusing joke into the ground. The film's charming first act, when we're still at home with the Fosters, is its finest; once we get to the big city, Levy loses his tenuous discipline. There are seemingly dozens of shootouts and a shrill, interminable chase sequence involving two cars that have become stuck together (don't ask). Levy wants us to wonder, "How'd they do that?" but it's hard to have any response other than "How much money did they spend?" Fey and Carell do their very best green-screen acting, but it's still uncomfortable watching them—especially Fey—trying to accommodate such brainless material. Remember when Liz Lemon was dating beeper-selling sex offender Dennis Duffy? It's a little like that.