Unless you sit through the closing credits of Date Night for the single, out-of-nowhere chortle that comes from a Tina Fey outtake, the latest product from director Shawn Levy (both Night at the Museums) leaves not a trace of pleasure. Date Night looks like a comedy all right, with its goofy high-concept premise and its swell lineup of supporting players, but it sure doesn't play like one. When set alongside this film, the sloppy but exuberant Hot Tub Time Machine feels like a work of a profound comic philosopher.
Date Night stars Steve Carell and Fey as the Fosters, a normal, middle-class New Jersey couple with normal, middle-class responsibilities — feeding the kids, working at their jobs, and planning for sex that doesn't happen as much as it used to — that ground the film in a recognizable reality which is quickly whisked away. One night they treat themselves to dinner in New York City, and after committing the unfathomable crime of taking someone else's restaurant reservation, they are plunged into a neon-lit Nighttown where they rub elbows with corrupt cops, shirtless super-spies, a pasta-gobbling mobster, and a district attorney with an appetite for kink capacious enough to include a normal, middle-class New Jersey couple pretending to be a stripper and her pimp.
To their credit — I guess — Fey and Carell throw themselves into their roles and disappear. But they're so good at being a beige Everycouple that they make you forget their respective pedigrees. It's probably unfair to compare different media, but it's unavoidably true that any random episode of either star's TV shows (The Office for Carell, 30 Rock for Fey) offers better writing and more complex storytelling than their big-screen joint venture. Carell's sudden, petulant explosions of insecurity and Fey's sharp, bitchy put-downs are severely curtailed. I'm indifferent to Carell, but I cherish Fey as both a late-blooming star and a late-blooming beauty. However, her role here is nearly identical to her role as a good-looking sexophobe in 2008's Baby Mama. Can she play any other role? Moreover, is she allowed to?
The underuse of the other actors in this film (Mark Ruffalo, Kristen Wiig, Nick Kroll, Ray Liotta, James Franco, Mila Kunis, and especially William Fichtner) shrivels the heart. Watching them drift into the frame for a scene or two and then vanish is as depressing as watching an old boot drift down a stream. Only Mark Wahlberg is used for more than a scene or two, as more of a physical prop than a flesh-and-blood spray of human graffiti. And to top it all off, the squares onscreen can't really make each other laugh. One of the things the Fosters like to do when they're out is look at other couples and imagine what they're talking about. Unfortunately, this improv setup falls flat three straight times. Not even the nostalgia of seeing a good, old-fashioned police-car pileup will keep this surprise box-office earner from the dustbin of history, where it can rub elbows with 1989's Three Fugitives.