Date Night: Big City, Not-So-Bright Lights

Whenever Hollywood ventures into suburbia, you may have a reasonable expectation that moviemakers will have considerably less sympathy for what they find than they typically do for, say, the average Shiite insurgent or Communist dictator. So Date Night, which is far from a great comedy, but does have enough laughs to make it worth watching on home video or pay TV, does take a surprising stance: That ordinary suburban upper-middle-class family types are nice, normal people who just need a little more sleep and maybe some time to themselves. (At least in the Northeast. Maybe someday soon Hollywood will discover that southerners are not necessarily scary rednecks, or that veterans aren't all freaked-out malcontents.)

Date Night stars Steve Carell, as Phil the tax lawyer, and Tina Fey, as Claire the real estate agent. They play harried marrieds living in New Jersey whose weekly date night to a local restaurant doesn't quite satisfy. They love their kids and their home but sex has become scarce (there's a funny moment when Phil makes meek inquiries about the possibility of putting the moves on his wife -- but she's dressed in a frumpy T-shirt and anyway must first pause to take out a retainer that's covered in slobber). Their days seem to be eaten away by family chores and even social occasions like a book group aren't much fun. Their kids dance on their heads at five a.m. By the time they get home from work in the evening, the idea of a romantic night out seems like yet another dull duty.

This is ground that has been staked out by a thousand sitcoms, but a sitcom done reasonably well is a fairly reliable form of entertainment and Carell and Fey make for a convincing couple. They even look alike, as married couples tend to do.

To shake things up in the mildest way possible, Phil suggests venturing into Manhattan (which, Claire tells her clients, is only 20 minutes away, though "that's a lie," she says. "It's an hour!") to try to get a table at the hottest restaurant in town, the kind where the snooty host answers the phone as if he's doing you a favor and if you didn't make a reservation, he dismisses you to the bar with the words, "I've forgotten you already."

The restaurant host's attitude is much like the average Hollywood director's mindset when it comes to the hard-working white-collar class, but in a throwback to old movies like The Out of Towners, New York City is presented as a sinful Sodom where everyone seems to be a criminal, a pervert, or at least a jerk. Date Night director Shawn Levy isn't overly gifted but in harmless movies like Cheaper by the Dozen and Night at the Museum he has shown he isn't a snob either.

As Phil and Claire pretend to be another couple in order to score a prized table at the fabulous restaurant, they become the targets of a couple of corrupt cops who are after a flash drive that contains incriminating pictures. The movie zips around Manhattan as the two try to outwit a variety of gun-wielding thugs with such tools as, for instance, the world's slowest speedboat and a flashy borrowed sports car that gets its bumper stuck on the front of a taxi for a frantic chase

These action scenes are largely ho-hum and fit in awkwardly with the couple's verbal sparring. If they're relaxed enough to trade witty remarks as the bullets fly, then they don't seem all that endangered, and getting the balance right in an action comedy is harder to pull off than Levy realizes. Movies like 48 Hours and Beverly Hills Cop are very much the exception.

In its best moments, Levy dispenses with the thrills and just lets the couple talk. Phil is miffed when Claire flirts with an international security consultant (played by a perpetually shirtless Mark Wahlberg) who helps them evade the killers, complaining that this buff bravo makes her light up like "a sparkly... sparkler!" (Carell's reading actually makes this line funny.) Claire replies that at the close of a day, when she is finished "washing other people's boogers off me," she isn't necessarily in the mood to be a sparkly sparkler. Most comedies would have left it there, with the standard desperate-housewife riff on marriage, but this one allows Phil a smart rebuttal: he says that if she weren't a control freak who demanded everything be done exactly her way, he could help out more with some of the household duties.

So the movie actually does have a sure feel for what's going on in the average suburban family, about its frustrations and repetitiveness, without taking a condescending view. And when everything wraps up as neatly as you'd expect, it has a nice moment when Phil tells Claire he'd choose her, and their life together, all over again, every day. If anything, the big city is best left to itself while the two of them look at each other and marvel at what they've got.