Rated: PG-13. Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes. 3 stars.
"Date Night" follows a burned-out married couple as their routine night on the town turns into the adventure of a lifetime. Not that you should care. All you really need to know is that it stars Tina Fey and Steve Carell, both big stars on NBC's Thursday Night lineup ("30 Rock," "The Office").
If you're a fan of either show (as this reviewer is), you've probably already decided that you'll buy a ticket and go with the same people you trade quotes with on Friday mornings. Imagine it: Liz Lemon and Michael Scott. Married with kids. I want to go to there.
Twentieth Century Fox did go there, and "Date Night" is the predictable result; a good thing for fans, and pretty much harmless to everyone else.
To be fair, Fey and Carell are not playing carbon copies of their television characters. This is especially true for Carell, who toned down Michael Scott's painfully unlikable qualities while maintaining his "nice guy from Scranton" core. But Carell's restraint makes for a surprisingly unremarkable performance as Phil Foster, a man whose biggest fault is being an overly thoughtful husband who wants to help more around the house (seriously).
Fey, however, is essentially Liz Lemon — after a lot of therapy, a career change and two kids. Here her name is Claire Foster, a generally content wife, mother and real estate agent who loves her family but could use a break. They both could, as we learn from their busy day-to-day routine that leaves them exhausted at the end of the day, too drained to muster up the energy for even "the quick version" before they fall asleep. "30 Rock" fans know that being overworked is the key to Fey's comedic persona, so — even without the neuroses and the eating disorders — Claire still has that laugh-inducing Lemon lovability.
Not all the characters in "Date Night" are TV spinoffs, however. James Franco ("Pineapple Express") gives us another lovable lowlife, while Mark Wahlberg keeps the females at attention with his perpetually shirtless security expert (and Claire's former client) that the couple turns to for help. It's nice to see the rapper-turned-underwear model-turned-serious actor lighten up a little.
Now that we've gotten the important stuff out of the way, we can talk about the unimportant part — the plot. Looking to spice up their lackluster lives, the Fosters take another couple's dinner reservation at a swanky restaurant. This leads to a case of mistaken identity by some relentless bad guys who chase the Fosters around New York City.
The rest of the movie is full of car chases, gunshots, mobsters, corrupt politicians and seedy strip clubs. But none of this ever really penetrates the taut bubble of niceness that Claire and Phil inhabit. For most movies, this would be a very bad thing. But writer Josh Klausner uses these buffoonish events as fuel to feed Fey and Carell's constant stream of banter — along the vein of "Everybody Loves Raymond" and "Modern Family."
With so many television references in this review, you may be wondering if you're reading the wrong column. But "Date Night" wears these comparisons well. This would be a very bad thing to say about most movies but, as Tina Fey and Steve Carell remind us, sometimes television is actually pretty good.