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Movie review: Carell, Fey lift 'Date Night,' but ultimately it disappoints

Al Alexander

It’s no secret that marriage can get boring, especially when kids, jobs and the residual exhaustion from each get in the way of intimacy. Add to that the contempt bred by familiarity and you have a recipe for divorce.

To combat this malaise, some dope invented date nights, a weekly ritual in which man and wife must force themselves to get off the couch, ditch their sweats and engage in extemporaneous conversation while stuffing their mouths with over-priced entrees in underwhelming venues.

I’ve never understood the point. And, thankfully, neither have the makers of “Date Night.” They mock the phenomenon with just enough cynicism to buy into their otherwise pedestrian tale about Phil and Claire Foster, a long-married couple from Jersey dealing with fissures in their relationship.

They’ve been coasting on fumes for months, and Steve Carell and Tina Fey perfectly express the stress and anxiety resulting from that beatdown. You see it in their faces and hear it in their voices as they lamely feign disdain for the couple pawing each other at the next table; secretly longing for that to be them.

It’s great stuff to watch because it’s honest and it’s genuine. And if director Shawn Levy and writer Josh Klausner had stuck to that level of realism, they might have really been on to something.

Instead, they fritter it away on a familiar yarn in which the Fosters become victims of mistaken identity after they steal another couple’s dinner reservation at an exclusive Manhattan restaurant.

Before you can say “After Hours” and “Adventures in Baby Sitting,” they’ve stepped through the looking glass into a dark criminal world where mobsters and crooked cops are in hot pursuit of them and a computer flash drive containing information people are more than willing to kill to get.

Beyond a surprising dearth of laughs, the chief problem lies in the movie’s episodic structure, which, like marriage, begins to take on a sameness, as the Fosters draw the ire of a series of special guest stars by repeatedly sticking their noses where they shouldn’t.

The central mystery is rooted in our trying to guess what could be on the flash drive that could warrant such chaos and destruction. The bigger question, though, is why did so many talented people get mixed up in this?

Just look at the names: Mark Wahlberg, Mark Ruffalo, Kristen Wiig, James Franco, Mila Kunis, Ray Liotta, Leighton Meester and Taraji P. Henson. Not to mention Fey and Carell, two of the hottest comedians working today.

Apparently they saw something I’m missing amid the perfunctory action and strained jokes holding “Date Night” together like low-gauge baling wire.

And speaking of baling; there’s was many a moment during the mercifully short 88 minutes when I was tempted to ditch this “Date.” But Carell and Fey were always there waiting to lure me back to the table.

I’m glad I stayed, too, because watching those two work their magic is fascinating, even more so when it’s in service of an inferior product like this one. You marvel at their skill and their versatility as they seamlessly jump from comedy rooted in subtle irony to full-on slapstick and back again.

DATE NIGHT (PG-13 for sexual and crude content throughout, language, some violence and a drug reference.) Cast includes Tina Fey, Steve Carell, Mark Wahlberg, James Franco, Mila Kunis, Mark Ruffalo, Kristen Wiig, Ray Liotta and Taraji P. Henson. Directed by Shawn Levy. 2.5 stars out of 4.