The Fosters, Phil (Carell) and Claire (Fey), are a painfully ordinary suburban couple stuck on the shoals of midlife. If you saw them at a restaurant, you'd no doubt peg him as a Boy Scout troop leader and her as a girls' vice principal.
Everyone else at the neighborhood taproom burns with sexual heat. The Fosters? They radiate . . . reliability. Phil and Claire worry about the impending bust-up of the couple they're closest to (Mark Ruffalo and Kristen Wiig), but can't share their anxiety because they've each been sworn to secrecy. Their deepest fear is that they've become friends without benefits.
Usually they greet their scheduled date night with the enthusiasm one might bring to an IRS audit. Then one Friday, Claire pours herself into a flirty cocktail dress and Phil is immediately inspired to take her to a trendy seafood place in Tribeca. When they pretend to be another couple in order to score a table, they are mistaken for blackmailers in possession of an incriminating flash drive.
With their matching deadpans and mirroring trick of speaking out of the side of their mouths, Phil and Claire are all the more eccentric for their ordinariness. Carell and Fey mine the humor of predictable characters acting unpredictably - and frequently, they strike gold.
For Phil's spreadsheet smarts and Claire's Realtor composure prove to be forceful weapons in intimidating corrupt cops, mobbed-up politicians, and mobsters.
From the evidence of the outtakes shown over the closing credits, Carell and Fey ad-libbed much of their material. But if Klausner's script didn't provide them with their best lines, his well-constructed scenario provided them with a springboard for some thrilling verbal high-dives.
And Levy, whose heavy directorial hand in Night at the Museum earned him the rep as the McG of family film, shows that he is capable of subtler effects. The visual humor of the unapologetically square Fosters, sack-suited and cocktail-dressed, hipping themselves out by wearing their clothes back to front, is nicely done. (Still, the sight of the Fosters performing a PG-rated pole dance in this PG-13 film may have been funnier in concept than in execution.)
The funniest visual joke is an extended sequence where the Fosters' stolen sports car is conjoined in grille-lock with an oncoming taxi.
Instead of the obligatory car chase, we get a slapstick metaphor of a stalled and unwieldy marriage. At first, husband and wife are driving not with, but against, each other. Ultimately, it takes both of them, each behind the wheel of a different vehicle, to synchronize their efforts and work together - which made me laugh and cry at the same time.
In addition to Carell and Fey, Date Night boasts a deft supporting cast that includes Mark Wahlberg, well-used as Claire's hunky ex-client, Taraji P. Henson, shrewd and sexy as a policewoman, and Ray Liotta as a none-too-bright wiseguy. Best of all are a very droll James Franco and Mila Kunis as the downtown hipsters for whom the Fosters are mistaken.
Date Night *** (out of four stars)
Directed by Shawn Levy. With Steve Carell, Tina Fey, Taraji P. Henson, Mark Wahlberg, James Franco, and Mila Kunis. Distributed by 20th Century Fox.
Running time: 1 hour, 28 mins.
Parent's guide: PG-13 (profanity, sexual candor, crude references, suggestive dancing)
Playing at: area theaters
Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or firstname.lastname@example.org.