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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Tina Fey and Steve Carell get a little more excitement than they bargained for.
Date Night could have been so, so bad. The movie has a high concept, but low ambition. When you hear the premise, it sounds like half a great idea melded with half a terrible idea. It might just as easily have been a Tom Arnold/Jenny McCarthy direct-to-DVD comedy as a major motion picture showcasing two of the top comic actors of our day. Somehow, in an act of sheer alchemy, this silly, preposterous, absurd story has been turned into one of the funniest movies I’ve seen in many months.

Steve Carell and Tina Fey play Phil and Claire Foster, a self-described “boring couple from New Jersey.” Claire is a real estate agent, Phil a financial adviser. They occasionally hire a babysitter and go out on a date, but it’s clear that a little of the spark has been lost from their marriage. The dates are pretty much always the same. After being rocked by the news that some close friends are splitting up, the Fosters decide it’s time to get their fizz back. They drive into Manhattan, hoping to have dinner at a hip new restaurant they’ve heard about. When it proves impossible to get a table, they pretend to be the Tripplehorns, a couple who, in reality, did not show up for their reservation.

After dinner, Phil and Claire are approached and hauled into an alley by two armed men (Jimmi Simpson and rapper Common) who are looking for the Tripplehorns and a flash drive they supposedly possess. The Fosters try to explain that they aren’t really the Tripplehorns, but it doesn’t work. This begins an adventure throughout New York City, as they attempt to outrun the armed men, find the real Tripplehorns, and get back home safe and sound. Fortunately, Claire knows one person in the city to ask for help: a perpetually-shirtless security expert (Mark Wahlberg) to whom she sold a condo.

The idea of having Carell and Fey play a married couple looking to re-ignite their passion is inspired. The idea of plopping them into the middle of a half-assed action movie is not. Surprisingly, Date Night pulls it off. For starters, the film really doesn’t take its story seriously, so we don’t feel the need to either. Under the direction of Shawn Levy (Night at the Museum), the picture simply asks you to take the premise at face value and not get bogged down in unnecessary details or exposition. It doesn’t matter who the Tripplehorns are or why they’re being sought by lowlifes. All the other characters and situations are just there as catalysts for the Fosters to humorously confront their marital issues.

Carell and Fey are both smart comic actors, capable of elevating material with their gifts of wit and impeccable timing. I think they probably knew that the “boring couple getting mixed up in a mystery” concept was one-note, at best. With that in mind, they have chosen to really emphasize the couple and dial down the mystery. Even when guns are being pointed at them or they’re in the middle of a car chase, the stars provide knowing characterizations of these semi-neurotic suburbanites. You feel Phil’s lack of security when Claire gets flirty around the hunky security expert, and Claire’s frustration that the chaos of their situation mirrors the chaos of trying to juggle a job and a family. Another example: while simultaneously dodging bullets and carrying a rowboat over their heads, Claire says to Phil, “If we die, I don’t want your mother getting the children! She’s horrible!” This sort of thing happens throughout Date Night, with sharp observations of marital ennui emerging amidst the action. Believe me, you won’t care about the mystery, but you will care about the Fosters.

Closing credit outtakes confirmed something I suspected while watching: the two leads were given tons of room to improvise. It is very apparent that they have put their personal stamp on the material. Carell is skilled at making absurd physical comedy somehow seem authentic, while Fey excels at humor that is, against all odds, simultaneously lowbrow and highbrow. The film meshes their styles perfectly, allowing them to take what they do best and apply it to the outrageous concept.

The picture also has some really amazing comic set pieces, which Carell and Fey dive right into. Late in the film, they’re forced to go undercover in a strip club and improvise some spontaneous seduction moves. You can imagine how nutty that gets with these two. In another scene, they return to the restaurant to look for clues about the Tripplehorns, trying to disguise themselves so as not to be recognized. Then there’s a sequence in which they encounter a taxi and its driver (played by “Curb Your Enthusiasm” co-star JB Smoove). What happens to the taxi and the way the driver reacts to it had me laughing so hard I almost couldn’t breathe.

I laughed throughout, often quite hard. In the wrong hands, Date Night could have been a very stupid movie. Levy and his actors have managed to find the intelligence buried inside that potential stupidity. This is not a movie about conspiracies and cover-ups and criminals; it’s about a middle-aged married couple who need a little excitement and find more than they bargained for. Accept the film at that fundamental level, then sit back and watch as Steve Carell and Tina Fey work their comedy magic. Date Night is not going to win any awards for ingeniousness or subtlety, but it is certainly a movie that consistently delivers big laughs.

( 1/2 out of four)

Date Night is rated PG-13 for sexual and crude content throughout, language, some violence and a drug reference. The running time is 1 hour and 28 minutes.

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