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.