Film Review: Date Night

Intermittently amusing action comedy with two deservedly well-liked stars whose ad-libs unfortunately aren't as funny as they think.

The ghost of After Hours hangs heavy on this madcap Manhattan action comedy that seems aimed at married baby boomers and at fans of stars Tina Fey ("30 Rock") and Steve Carell ("The Office"). But where that 1985 Martin Scorsese cult classic, about a hapless Everyman caught in a progressively more bizarre spiral of eccentrics over the course of a night and early morning in Soho, created a unique mood and a surreal foreboding, Date Night's domino machinations in much the same literal and figurative territory seem an irrelevant and mostly unconvincing clothesline on which Fey and Carell can hang improvised riffs (as the many alternate takes seen during and after the credits show).

Were those riffs more than intermittently funny, playing to the stars' strengths might have worked. But talented as those stars may be, their TV shows are scripted, and a stronger, funnier script here in the first place would have better utilized their talents.

The two play a New Jersey couple, Claire and Phil Foster—she a realtor, he an accountant—with two rambunctious young kids and the subsequent zombie tiredness that accompanies that burden. They nonetheless make an effort at a date night each week, leaving the children with a sitter (Leighton Meester of “Gossip Girl”) while they eat the same thing at the same local steakhouse (a dead-on marvel of production design—cozy, dark wood and a fireplace, and yet somehow as middle-of-the-road suburban as can be). One week, after having been shocked by the impending divorce of their close friends (the talented Mark Ruffalo and Kristen Wiig, given throwaway roles), Phil impulsively takes Claire to the hottest restaurant in Manhattan, where, sans reservations, they're relegated to wait-at-the-bar hell. When a couple called the Tripplehorns don't answer when their table is called, Phil claims he and Claire are they.

Thus begins a mistaken-identity chase by two corrupt cops (a colorless Common and the scraggly, increasingly impressive Jimmi Simpson) who want a flash drive that the Tripplehorns are holding for ransom. Soon the fleeing Fosters are encountering a shirtless security hunk (Mark Wahlberg); a detective whose allegiance is uncertain (Taraji P. Henson); a mobster (a welcome Ray Liotta, in two scenes); the crusading Manhattan D.A. with a secret (the always great William Fichtner); and the actual "Tripplehorns," a petty-criminal couple (James Franco and Mila Kunis) using that as their ransoming name since (in one of too many insular movie-geek references) the former is a fan of the actress Jeanne Tripplehorn.

That Franco and Kunis in their one scene completely steal the show by actually playing characters—as opposed to the stars' just playing slight variations on their TV personae—says a lot about why Date Night is so hit-or-miss. The impression is that director Shawn Levy—most of whose films until the fluke Night at the Museum were critical and commercial flops—needed to wrap production quickly before the stars' series hiatuses ended. Which doesn't explain how editor Dean Zimmerman can't even match cuts in scenes where characters aren't even moving but just sitting down.

Ironically, the stars' best and most genuinely moving scene is one that seems thoroughly scripted and not ad-libbed, when the two, in a getaway car, pull over on a deserted street and talk about the dreams and regrets of marriage. Had Fey and Carell been given a fleshed-out script and the chance to really act, this would have been a much different and better movie.