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Originally published April 8, 2010 at 3:00 PM | Page modified April 9, 2010 at 2:31 PM

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Movie review

'Date Night': This Tina Fey/Steve Carell comedy vehicle is a gas

A review of "Date Night," starring comedy king and queen Steve Carell and Tina Fey.

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie review 3 stars

'Date Night,' with Steve Carell, Tina Fey, Mark Wahlberg, Taraji P. Henson. Directed by Shawn Levy, from a screenplay by Josh Klausner. 87 minutes. Rated PG-13 for sexual and crude content throughout, language, some violence and a drug reference. Several theaters.

Movie review 3 stars

Phil and Clare Foster (Steve Carell, Tina Fey) are a perfectly normal New Jersey couple. He's a tax accountant; she's a real estate agent. They have two kids, an overscheduled life and a regular "date night," when a sitter shows up and the Fosters go out to a restaurant — the same one, every week. One night, fearing a rut, they decide to shake things up: Clare dresses up and the two head for a trendy Manhattan eatery, where in a moment of recklessness they claim somebody else's reservation (thus launching one of the film's running gags: "You took someone else's reservation?"). And then — trouble ensues, in the form of mistaken identity, thugs with guns, car chases, shirtless security experts and a lot of running.

In short, "Date Night" could have been another "The Bounty Hunter" — a DOA movie-star romantic comedy mixed with implausible action/adventure. But instead it's the happiest of surprises: a genuinely sweet, funny movie. Credit Carell and Fey with creating the kind of chemistry that makes you root for them instantly; screenwriter Josh Klausner for crafting a story about a long-married couple who actually seem to still be in love with each other (something we don't see on screen too often, more's the pity); and director Shawn Levy for knowing exactly how long this sort of caper should last (just under 90 minutes, in this case), and wrapping things up just as it all starts getting too silly.

Fey and Carell have said in interviews that they were encouraged to ad-lib in their roles, and it shows: Both performances are loose, likable and filled with throwaway funny lines involving book clubs; risotto; people's mothers; men with inexplicable muscles in their shoulders (Mark Wahlberg, whose bare chest becomes another running gag); and actress Jeanne Tripplehorn, who is not in this movie but who I hope gets to see it right away. Taraji P. Henson turns up as a skeptical detective; J.B. Smoove as a terrified cabdriver with eclectic taste in books; and an uncredited Mark Ruffalo as a friend whose marriage has fallen apart. (He and his wife have become merely "excellent roommates," a fate Phil and Clare fear.)

Ultimately "Date Night" feels a bit like a lighter "After Hours," as the Fosters make their way past one obstacle to another on their way home again, and like many such movies it doesn't make too much sense if you peer at the plot too closely. But Fey and Carell make it, between the laughs, an unexpected love story. There's a moment on the subway, when Phil gazes affectionately at Clare after she's made a verbal stumble, when you're genuinely touched by the bond between these two — and by the delicate skill of two comedians who know how to handle a quiet moment. You never doubt that the Fosters will safely find their way home; this modern-day Nick and Nora were meant to be together.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

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