Putting Tina Fey and Steve Carell together seems so natural it’s hard to believe that it took this long. Both are funny in part because they let us see how smart they are. The characters they play on television may be clueless (about some things in her case, about pretty much everything in his), but they are clever about their cluelessness. They make us lean in a little, listen a little more closely — we have to up our game a bit to make sure we catch all the fine points, which are actually pretty fine. This is one movie where the closing credit out-takes are worth the wait.
They are perfectly cast in “Date Night” as a suburban couple who feel that they are in a bit of a rut. Their lives are so dull that when they are out together they amuse each other by inventing conversations about more interesting lives for the couples around them. So instead of their usual weekly outing to a suburban restaurant for potato skins and salmon, they go into Manhattan for a big night out on the town at a trendy restaurant. And then everything goes wrong, wronger, and wrongest, and funny, and funnier, and if not funniest, funny enough for making your own date night worth the cost of the tickets and babysitter.
I like the way they do not go for the usual easy laughs based on incompetence and misunderstandings — at least not between the couple. Of course there are a lot of misunderstandings with everyone around them when Phil (Carell) impulsively lies about who he is in order to score a table at a fancy restaurant. It turns out that the name he has appropriated is the nom de crime of a couple who have stolen something that some very nasty people want back very badly. This leads Phil and Claire (Fey) on a wild goose chase all over Manhattan.
What I like best about this movie is that it avoids the usual easy laughs that come from incompetence and mistrust. Claire and Phil may be in way over their heads, but they never lose the essential sweetness of their connection. They — and Fey and Carell — always seem to be getting a kick out of each other. As actors and as human beings, both have an authentic understanding of the rhythms of marital shorthand (and sometime short-changing). They always have each other’s backs. And a constant stream of expert guest performers in supporting roles keeps the movie fresh and energetic. Director Shawn Levy (the Night at the Museum movies) knows how to blend action and comedy and this time he’s even added in some heart.