Movie review: ‘Date Night’

Think of “Date Night” as a half-a-loaf comedy. No, it’s not set in a bakery, but though it is funny it will likely leave you hungry for more as you consider the age-old perception that having half a loaf is better than none at all.

If you’ve been anywhere near a moving bus or a stationary billboard lately, you know that what’s on offer on the plus side is the presence of a pair of supremely amusing people, Steve Carell and Tina Fey.

In both their television and feature work, these two are phone-book funny: They can make you laugh by reading anything at all. When you throw in their gift for physical comedy and their world-class reaction shots -- plus adept costars like Mark Wahlberg -- you know that there’s going to be things here to make you smile.

That said, as written by Josh Klausner and directed by Shawn Levy, “Date Night’s” story of a romantic night in Manhattan that goes completely awry is fairly standard stuff. It is diverting, and it gives these two their first chance to work together, yet you can’t help but wish that the film functioned on as high a level as its stars do.

Carell and Fey play Phil and Claire Foster, a self-described “boring couple from New Jersey” whose exhausting jobs in business and real estate and demanding young children leave them with precious little energy to keep the romance in their lives.

That condition rises to the level of a crisis when a couple in their circle, Brad and Haley Sullivan (a woefully underutilized Mark Ruffalo and Kristen Wiig), announce they are splitting up. What he and his wife have become, Brad mournfully tells Phil, is “the most excellent roommates.”

Determined not to let that happen to them, the still-in-love Fosters decide to forsake their usual date night at the Teaneck Tavern in favor of an exciting evening out in Manhattan at a hot new restaurant called Claw. “I want this night to be different,” Phil says, and so it turns out to be.

Claw is in fact so much the hot spot that the Fosters can’t get a table. In an unusual act of bravado that becomes one of the film’s running jokes, they take an unclaimed reservation by passing themselves off as a couple called the Tripplehorns. It turns out, however, that the Tripplehorns have come to the attention of big-time crime boss Joe Miletto (Ray Liotta), who sends a pair of goons to threaten them with death unless they come up with a flash drive that belongs to him.

Not being the Tripplehorns and blocked by the script from confiding in the police, the Fosters have no idea where to turn until Claire remembers hunky former real estate client Holbrooke Grant (a very funny Wahlberg), who just happens to be a security expert. The interaction between these three, much of it involving Grant’s hot Israeli girlfriend (Gal Gadot) and his refusal to put on a shirt, is the consistently funniest part of the film. Also good are the always reliable duo of James Franco and Mila Kunis as the real Tripplehorns. Sort of.

All this is good as far as it goes, but the problem is the good parts don’t last long enough. Instead of keeping the film strictly funny, director Levy, who commissioned the script and whose credits include the audience-friendly “Night at the Museum” franchise, becomes overeager for our approval, with uneven results.

Intent on touching as many cinematic bases as possible, “Date Night” contrives some awkward and self-consciously poignant moments between Phil and Claire and the kind of super-elaborate car chase Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn would have had no part of. It’s as if there are so few movies for adults made these days the filmmakers want to make sure no one in the theater feels left out.

None of this would be troublesome except for the knowledge of how funny Carell and Fey are when the film is smart enough to use them well. This is vividly demonstrated in the outrageous gag reel outtakes placed at both the beginning and the end of the final credits. When we see what these two can do, the feeling is inescapable that “Date Night” has left some laughs on the table.