Rushing around her suburban New Jersey homestead, Claire (Tina Fey) tries to contain the roiling chaos of her family’s morning routine. On her way out of the kitchen, she’s stopped short by a tier of drawers left open. She grimaces. The meeting of kitchen drawers and mommy’s knees has become de rigueur and Claire is desperate to change that pattern.
A similar monotony shapes Claire’s relationship with her husband Phil (Steve Carell). He’s a tax attorney and she’s a real estate agent in Jersey, which is to say both endure soul-sucking careers. Once a week they schedule a “date night” and hire a babysitter. But date night, you soon learn in Date Night, is just as repetitive as the rest of their lives. They inevitably end up at the same restaurant, where they’re served by the same waiter and eat the same meals—week after week. When a pair of married friends announce their intent to break up because they’ve grown to be “really good roommates” more than lovers, Claire and Phil realize they too have come to take each other for granted and that they need to shake things up a bit. And so they take a journey on date night, into the wilds of Manhattan for dinner.
Once in the city, of course, mishaps and madcap-iness ensue. Neither the set-up nor the series of sticky situations the Fosters run into is fresh. You know that they will encounter some criminals, whether of the wise guy or gang-banger variety. There will be sexy shenanigans and mistaken identities. It’s comedy ground that has been trod before in films like The Out of Towners (1970) and After Hours (1985).
Date Night knows this, and offers something of an homage to Jack Lemmon and Sandy Dennis in the pairing of Fey and Carell, which produces similar comic excellence. If you watched any red-carpet film and television events over the past few months, you couldn’t escape the two pulling extra duty promoting the film, and all the interviewers seemed on the same script by observing that finally Fey and Carell were working together.
No doubt about it, they are two of the funniest people working on screens big and small today, and watching them react to each other is a delight. But Date Night is also something of an ensemble film, with a number of excellent and surprising cameos. When Claire realizes that she has a former client who may be able to help them out of their crisis, and so she and Phil head over to his apartment. Phil is immediately flummoxed when Holbrooke (Mark Wahlberg) answers the door, naked to the waist, perked up pecs shining with dewy sweat. Wahlberg’s body may be notorious, but he also demonstrates here a smart deadpan delivery that is a perfect foil to Carell’s mounting-fluster routine.
Phil is no less anxious when he meets drug-addled wannabe thieves “Taste” (James Franco) and “Whippet” (Mila Kunis). She calls Claire a “stupid skank,” with the sort of matter-of-factness Kunis honed on That ‘70s Show, and so sets the juvenile tone for the rest of the encounter. Amid this agile sort of communication, Phil and Claire are way out of their league, and he’s reduced to making up trash talk on the fly and failing miserably, telling Taste at one point to “zip your vagina.” Still, Kunis steals the scene, in the aftermath of which Phil and Claire are left simply stunned.
Ultimately, however, this is Fey and Carell’s movie. Sure, they are playing “Claire” and “Phil,” but in timing, delivery, and charisma, they are exactly who they always are, and this is a good thing. The humor is also familiar from their previous work, in that it is wry, situational, and understated. In this Date Night is an excellent antidote to the spate of gross-out, boys-behaving-badly comedies currently dominating the genre.