*Date Night (PG-13)
Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Hollywood Interquest, Kimball's Peak Three, Tinseltown
If you hang around for the outtakes during the closing credits of Date Night, you won't see overwhelming hilarity. But you might get some insight into how much the success of a typical Hollywood comedy depends on its stars.
That might not seem like the most obvious conclusion to reach from a movie like Date Night. After all, Steve Carell and Tina Fey aren't super-sized comedy personalities. But pay close attention to most of the payoff scenes in Date Night, and think about whether they would be funny without the duo.
The entire premise is built on the stars' perceived ordinariness. Phil Foster (Carell) and his wife Claire (Fey) are a New Jersey couple who have fallen into that familiar routine of suburban spouses everywhere: They spend every second on their kids and jobs, leaving little time for each other. After learning that some married friends are separating, Phil suggests dinner at a posh Manhattan restaurant, where getting a table requires stealing the spot of another couple. And that couple appears to have caught the attention of some mobsters and crooked cops.
Once the Fosters have been mistaken for the "Tripplehorns," there are wild getaways, shootouts, car chases and a few occasions for our milquetoast heroes to pretend to be more badass than they actually are. While director Shawn Levy (Night at the Museum) wrangles it all into something resembling a movie, none of it yanks you in new or unpredictable directions. It's a bowl of cinematic ice cream, and it's vanilla.
If anything adds flavor, it's Fey and Carell. There's no way to know whether specific lines were improvised, but you get a decent hint from those outtakes. In one, Phil and Claire play a favorite game in which they guess the "story" of another couple in the restaurant, each one upping the outrageousness in their imagined half of a conversation. Later, they return to the restaurant, hamming it up as trendy a-holes to get some needed information. And when they finally encounter the real Tripplehorns, there's a great exchange of tough-guy patter between Phil and the tattooed thief (James Franco). I'm sure the script included some kind of dialogue at those points; I'm equally sure that once the cameras rolled, the direction probably amounted to, "Say and do funny things" — and it worked.
Fey and Carell both excel at making self-deprecation seem casual and genuine, like Claire picking a specific stripper disguise because it hides her C-section scar. They're also both at their best in situations where they're smarter than the people around them, tossing off withering lines. And it helps that they're deft enough actors to make the subtext about re-invigorating a relationship feel like something that isn't completely tacked on.
You can see the strain in a late scene in which they do an impromptu pole-dance at a club. The intentional physical awkwardness doesn't play to the actors' strengths, and only illustrates that when Fey and Carell aren't nailing a scene in Date Night, there's not much reason to be watching.
Still, they do nail a whole lot of scenes, enough to make the silly plot shenanigans easy to ignore — and proving that making a successful Hollywood comedy is sometimes as simple as pointing talented performers in the right direction, and getting the hell out of the way.