“Date Night,” directed by Shawn Levy, written by Josh Klausner, reminds us of the comedy adage, if you hit a guy in the face with a pie, it’s funny. If he’s wearing a tuxedo, it’s hilarious. For most of the film, night-on-the-town husband and wife, Phil (Steve Carell) and Claire Foster (Tina Fey) look elegant, respectively, in their smart suit and little black dress. Their attire sets up the many humorous scenes, most of which involve near-death moments in which both characters inadvertently say something inappropriate, gawky, or downright gauche.
The Fosters are a well off if boring couple that lives in New Jersey. He’s a tax consultant, she’s a real estate agent. Their lives are comfortable, if predictable: they have routines (including sex), they have simple joys (guessing the life stories of people seated around them in a restaurant), and they’re clearly made for each other. When their friends Brad (Mark Ruffalo) and Haley (Kristen Wiig) announce their divorce, the Fosters decide that it’s time to rekindle the magic of their courtship, so they decide to have a night out in New York. Unexpectedly Phil is a lot more debonair than usual; Claire plays the role of a prom queen to a tee. When you add a case of mistaken identity, crooked cops, a mobster boss, Joe Miletto (Ray Liotta), a couple of blackmailers, "Taste" (James Franco) and "Whippit" (Mila Kunis), the film goes from romantically cute to hilariously dangerous.
The dangers Phil and Claire face are real but the casting of Carell and Fey make it impossible to take them seriously. In a particularly harrowing scene shot in an alley, when Phil exclaims, “Oh God, it’s a kill shot, it’s a kill shot,” you don’t for a moment feel fear. No, it’s your recognition of a phrase Phil picked up in a movie or TV show. Likewise when they discuss a recent narrow escape, it’s hard to not fall out of your chair when Claire recounts how they almost got whacked off, instead of whacked. The fact that Claire would use whack is funny enough; when she misuses the term, it’s funny-plus-one.
Klausner’s script is well-wrought. The set up as the couple that has everything but drama in their lives works amazingly well. The series of attempts to instill that drama – from going out on a proper date, to conning their way into that chi-chi restaurant, to escaping the first whack off attempt, to seeking advice from Holbrooke (Mark Wahlberg), Claire’s too handsome former client, to their decision not to run back to their suburban fortress but fight it out to the end – carry the movie through to the very last second when, laying on their lawn at dawn they decide to, um, consummate the evening. As taut as Levy’s direction may be, it would be more accurate to say that he simply had to position Carell and Fey in front off the camera and yell “Action!” The two leads, in roles that seem to have been written for them, more than ably take it from there.