April 9, 2010 at 8:22 am

Tom Long Film Review: 'Date Night' -- GRADE: B

Review: 'Date Night' a rowdy laugh fest

Tom Long reviews 'Date Night'
Tom Long reviews 'Date Night': Tom Long reviews 'Date Night'

"Date Night" is, not surprisingly, a date movie.

Its slapstick story of a married couple enduring outrageous fortune offers a lot of laughs, a bit of romance and plenty for either sex to relate to.

What makes it funnier than it has any right to be -- aside from the recurring image of a blithely shirtless Mark Wahlberg -- is Tina Fey, whose asides, improvs and double takes not only overcome the formulaic story, they make it not even matter. Yeah, here come the bad guys again -- ohmygod, what did she just say?

Fey may be the funniest person alive right now; she's certainly one of the most successful funny people alive. With her TV powerhouse "30 Rock" packing more chuckles in a minute than most shows do in 30 and her nation-rocking Sarah Palin impersonation poised to rule the next presidential election cycle (don't kid yourself, the Fey factor may alter American history), she's everywhere and we're undoubtedly better for it.

"Date Night," though, pretty much exposes and celebrates her approach to humor. She's not some grandmaster comic in the tradition of Richard Pryor or George Carlin or even Ricky Gervais, concocting elaborate routines that ask big questions.

She is instead a mistress of quick-jab observations and quips, filled with common man-woman desires and insecurities. When she cries in anguish as the "little rainbow spinning thing" comes on her computer, who can't relate? And what the heck is that thing called?

As a result "Date Night" never pretends to be a great film. It's a series of quickie jokes built into a predictable storyline, goosed consistently by Fey and Steve Carell. It offers nothing beyond silly entertainment and the opportunity to recognize one's own self in far-fetched circumstance.

At times it's bliss, at times mundane. But when Fey speaks, you almost always laugh.

The far-fetched circumstance at hand involves husband and wife Phil (Carell) and Claire (Fey) Foster, New Jersey suburbanites who try to break the monotony of family life with a date every week, usually to the same dull restaurant.

When the couple finds out a pair of friends are abandoning their marriage, they try to up the ante on date night and head for a fancy Manhattan restaurant, where they, of course, can't get a table.

So when a hostess comes by calling for Tripplehorn, party of two and no one responds, Phil decides to seize the moment and steal the reservation.

Unfortunately for the Fosters, fortunately for the audience, it turns out the Tripplehorns have stolen something very valuable, and all sorts of nasty people want to get it back. When the thugs out to reclaim said item mistake the Fosters for the Tripplehorns, the chase is on.

Wackiness ensues, and director Shawn Levy ("Night at the Museum"), following a script by Josh Klausner, trails our on-the-run couple from Central Park ("the Central Park," Claire says) to a police precinct house to the grungy apartment of the real Tripplehorns (who use the name because Jean Tripplehorn is such a "fine actress," which she is) to the subway, a strip club and beyond.

There are a lot of cameos here -- Kristen Wiig, Mark Ruffalo, Ray Liotta, William Fichtner, Leighton Meester -- but James Franco and Mila Kunis break away from the pack as the heavily tattooed and thoroughly profane Tripplehorns.

The great recurring joke, though, is Wahlberg, playing some ex-military, absurdly muscled superspy-type who helps the Fosters from the comfort of his apartment while unconsciously tantalizing Claire and making Phil feel rightfully inadequate.

Levy succumbs to the car chase temptation that plagues films like this, and the storyline goes broader than needed (the ending abandons all sense), while Carell veers dangerously close to "Get Smart" territory at times.

But ultimately "Date Night" is effective, harmless fun that leaves you satisfied while wondering -- can Tina Fey do better than this? And also -- should she have to?

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Tina Fey and Steve Carell bite off more than they can handle when they pounce on an unclaimed reservation at a Manhattan restaurant. / Myles Aronowitz
A constantly shirtless security expert, played by Mark Wahlberg, comes to ... (Suzanne Tenner)