A romantic comedy with action, edge and genuine chemistry between its leads, “Date Night” scores a home run. As a suburban couple whose evening out goes disastrously wrong, setting off a boisterous Gotham pursuit, Steve Carell and Tina Fey are ideally suited both to each other and to the material. Helmer Shawn Levy (“Night at the Museum”) tempers his customary flair for action with an unexpected capacity for warmth, making an uncommonly engaging date movie that should also score at the box office.
From their deadpan comedic styles to their brunet good looks, Fey and Carell are so well matched it seems almost inconceivable that this is their first onscreen pairing. As Phil and Claire Foster, a couple whose marriage is overrun by the demands of their energetic kids and their exhausting work schedules, they’re like your neighbors. And in a sense, they are, having been in most of our homes already: Currently fronting two of NBC’s workplace sitcoms, Carell (“The Office”) and Fey (“30 Rock”) both benefit from the audience’s familiarity with their personae.
So when they discover that their good friends Haley and Brad (Kristen Wiig, Mark Ruffalo) are splitting up, largely out of boredom, Phil and Claire decide to take a night out to rekindle their romance. Arriving at the absurdly elitist eatery Claw, they’re told they have no chance of a table; when another couple fail to arrive for their scheduled slot, Phil spontaneously opts to assume their name — the Tripplehorns — and snag their table.
That fateful decision sparks a series of events that veer from mildly uncomfortable to truly alarming, but never lose their sardonic edge. When two thugs (Jimmi Simpson, Common) show up, insisting the “Tripplehorns” accompany them to a dark alley, Claire is more concerned with preserving her risotto, but it soon becomes clear these guys mean business.
A brush with a lethal weapon and an involuntary trip to the Central Park Boathouse are only the beginning of their woes: The night leads them into contact with a quizzical police officer (Taraji P. Henson), a shirtless security agent (Mark Wahlberg, relishing the role) and a tattooed, glue-sniffing young couple (Mila Kunis and James Franco). Rounding out the cast are William Fichtner as a D.A. in the Eliot Spitzer mold and an uncredited Ray Liotta as a Mafia boss.
Technical elements are fine throughout, with particular credit due the staging of a car chase that raises the bar for sequences of this sort. With a script credited to Josh Klausner (a writer on the upcoming “Shrek Forever After”), “Date Night” also reaps obvious dividends from Fey and Carell’s comfort with improvisation (as the outtakes during the closing credits make clear); their verbal dexterity, easy banter, naturalistic charm and, in particular, willingness to mock themselves help forge an immediate alliance with the audience. And when Fey delivers a monologue about the exhaustions she feels as a working mom, women watching will nod their heads in agreement.
At times, pic’s domino-style series of spontaneous adventures, gallery of unsavory characters and brushes with peril suggest a lesser version of the nocturnal black comedies “After Hours” or “Into the Night” — but those were rated R, and this one is resolutely PG-13. That’s a little too bad, as it would be fun to see where Fey and Carell could really go if let loose, and if “Date Night” had even further embraced its edginess. Nevertheless, it’s a date worth making.