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Must Flee TV

MOVIE REVIEW
Date Night (2010)

DN-138
Myles Aronowitz/20th Century Fox

“Date Night” achieves the impressive feat of squandering Steve Carell and Tina Fey behind the wheezy action-comedy aesthetic of director Shawn Levy. In films ranging from “Cheaper by the Dozen” to “Night at the Museum,” the now-veteran helmer has demonstrated a far firmer grasp of hoary broad clichés than the nuances of human behavior studied on “The Office” and “30 Rock.” Though well cast and sprinkled with the occasional dose of realistic emotion in its portrait of a marriage gone stale, “Date Night” mostly just spins its wheels through frenetically rendered, meaningless plot developments disguised as a narrative.

Mr. Carell and Ms. Fey star as Phil and Clare Foster, a self-professed “boring couple from New Jersey” bogged down in the suburban routine of working hard and raising kids. One night on a whim, they decide to take a trip to big, bad New York City and talk their way into a table at a trendy Lower Manhattan restaurant. Subsequently, loose-limbed convolutions amass at breakneck speed and the couple finds it is enmeshed in a case of mistaken identity that has it on the run through the city’s “mean streets,” from crooked cops (Common and Jimmi Simpson) who appear to be working for a psychotic mobster (Ray Liotta, naturally).

Plot overwhelms character as Mr. Levy’s busy sensibility prevents his leads from drawing on their strong points as performers. It’s hard to bring much depth or wit to individuals who are so engulfed by the scramble from one forced set piece to the next. The screenplay literally grinds itself to a halt — Phil pulls over the car — so the couple can talk about its problems. Mostly, they’re leading police on car chases, breaking into a real-estate agency’s office and/or frantically confronting a motley cast of characters including a shirtless security expert (Mark Wahlberg).

Instead of taking its cue from the real, engaging emotions that the notion of Mr. Carell and Ms. Fey as a floundering married couple demand, the humor in “Date Night” can be neatly compartmentalized. There are the “boring couple” in the urban jungle jokes (most of the picture), the halfhearted verbal puns, a handful of action sequences (including the police car pileup staple) and a heap of sub-“Saturday Night Live” too-calculated bits, as when the Fosters impersonate friends of the Black Eyed Peas’s will.i.am. The plot wildly hurtles forward, skipping from one thin development to the next on a quest for eventual enlightenment. The movie so dependably sticks to the routine that no one (save for James Franco and Mila Kunis in bit parts) seems to be having fun. Tether up these actors and make them appear miserable? It takes a special talent for that.

DATE NIGHT

Opens on April 8 in the United States and on April 21 in Britain.

Produced and directed by Shawn Levy; written by Josh Klausner; director of photography, Dean Semler; music by Christophe Beck; production designer, David Gropman; costumes by Marlene Stewart; released by 20th Century Fox. Running time: 1 hour 28 minutes. This film is rated PG-13 by M.P.A.A. and 15 by B.B.F.C.

WITH: Steve Carell (Phil Foster), Tina Fey (Claire Foster), Mark Wahlberg (Holbrooke Grant), Taraji P. Henson (Detective Arroyo), Kristen Wiig (Haley Sullivan), James Franco (Taste), Mila Kunis (Whippit), Jimmi Simpson (Armstrong) and Common (Collins).

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