Steve Carell and Tina Fey's night out is not so much a bad date as a sad date.
These are two of the funniest people ever on television, yet their big-screen "Date Night" is a dreary, uninspired waste of their talents - and those of the top-name cast inexplicably appearing in small throwaway roles.
The movie manages the barest glimmers of the droll humor of Carell's "The Office" and the snappy wit of Fey's "30 Rock," and those few moments underscore how barren "Date Night" is the rest of the time.
Carell and Fey have an easy, affectionate rapport as run-down parents looking to renew some romantic sparks with a night out in Manhattan to break their boring routine.
The actors try hard to make it work, but the lowbrow sensibilities of director Shawn Levy (the "Night at the Museum" movies, "Cheaper by the Dozen") leave them tottering through painful verbal exchanges, lame stunts and other dreadfully unfunny hijinks (their pole dance at a strip club is just embarrassing, and like so many of the movie's gags, it drags on a long time).
The sketchy premise in screenwriter Josh Klausner's script casts Carell and Fey as Phil and Claire Foster, tired, ordinary but reasonably content with their cozy New Jersey life with their two kids. Once a week, Phil and Claire have a "date night" - dinner and the same old table talk at the same old local restaurant.
After two of their friends (Mark Ruffalo and Kristen Wiig) announce they're splitting up, the Fosters decide they need a marital booster and head to the city. Swiping a no-show couple's dinner reservation at a trendy Manhattan restaurant, the Fosters are mistaken for blackmailers who stole a flash-drive with incriminating information about some very dangerous criminal types.
Date night turns into a night on the run for Phil and Claire, who cross paths with a mobster (Ray Liotta), a security expert (Mark Wahlberg), a devoted cop (Taraji P. Henson), a drug dealer and his stripper girlfriend(James Franco and Mila Kunis) and two relentless thugs (Common and Jimmi Simpson).
The filmmakers give these extra hands nothing remotely interesting or amusing to do (ongoing gags about Wahlberg's shirtlessness are so repetitive they become exasperating).
Ruffalo's character says his marriage has become so humdrum that he and his soon-to-be-ex are nothing more than "excellent roommates." That kind of sums up the dynamic between Fey and Carell, a couple of troupers who do try to deliver their drowsy lines as if they were saying funny stuff.
But like Phil and Claire, they are going through the motions, pretending they're in a good comedy in hopes of keeping it from falling apart.
It falls apart, anyway. Clearly, things have gone wrong when the outtakes pasted over the end credits cannot even provoke a chuckle.
Skip this "Date Night." Put the money toward your own night out at a fancy restaurant. Call ahead for a reservation first.
"Date Night," a 20th Century Fox release, is rated PG-13 for sexual and crude content throughout, language, some violence and a drug reference. Running time: 88 minutes. One and a half stars out of four.
By DAVID GERMAIN