Night at the Museum films and the Pink Panther remake (a project for which he could have saved a lot of people considerable time and money by merely seeking out Peter Sellers's grave and taking a long, slow piss all over it). But his direction here is energetic and effective; he appears to have primarily made the wise decision to stay out of his performers' way.
The screenplay by Josh Klausner (whose only other credits of note are for writing the later, lesser Shrek movies) ain't exactly Lubitsch, but it gets the job done. It's basically a riff on those "one long night" action/comedies from the 1980s--films like Adventures in Babysitting, Mystery Date, and License to Drive, in which ordinary folks found themselves caught up in a web of crime and adventure, telescoped into a short time frame. Laughs are had, cars are crashed, lessons are learned, and so on and so on. (Scorsese's After Hours was the art-house take on the sub-genre.) Carell and Fey play Phil and Claire Foster, an accountant and his real estate agent wife, grinding away their family life out in New Jersey. They're happy (basically) and comfortable (certainly), but when their best friends (Mark Ruffalo and Kristen Wiig) tell them they're splitting up, it throws the routine and convenience of their union under a spotlight. Are they, too, just "excellent roommates"?
To shake things up on their regular "date night," they decide to dress up a little and forgo their neighborhood steak house for an overpriced hot spot in the city. It's the kind of place where people make reservations a month in advance (the snotty maître d' answers the phone by announcing, "This is Claw, you're welcome"), so their spontaneous night out is looking like a bust until straight-laced Phil decides to grab another, apparently absent, couple's reservation. Trouble is, once they've begun to impersonate "the Tripplehorns," some bad dudes with guns are inclined to believe they're who they say they are.
The events that follow--the expected nonsense about dirty cops, powerful mobsters, blackmail, and a valuable flash drive--are pretty goofy, and mostly function to send our heroes scrambling around New York City and bouncing into various comic vignettes and chases. What makes the film work is that the engaging stars are never winking at the material (as silly as it gets), and they take the straight beats seriously. The business with the divorcing friends is basically inciting action, yes, but Carell and Fey's understated anxiety (and the vividness of the opening scenes' portrait of a marriage that's not bad, but a little stale) gives the ensuing events real stakes and consequences. You may not believe everything that happens to them, but you believe that they're a real married couple from Jersey, and that's just as important.
Fey is downright terrific, tossing off her laugh lines with the same naturalistic aplomb as on television; when she's first awakened by her hyperactive daughter, her sleepy reaction is priceless ("Oh, you have so many needs..."), and when she bluffs her way past a doorman by affecting a gum-chewing tough girl voice, the giddiness with which she whispers to her husband, "I don't really have gum!" gets one of the biggest laughs in the picture. (The film also thankfully gives her the opportunity to play funny/sexy; that turn of events, towards the end of the film, is unexpected and rather wonderful.) Carell only occasionally falls into his go-to square-guy persona; his Phil Foster is a twist on that guy, sincere if a little daft, protective and surprisingly fearless. He finds a moment of real emotion and genuine desperation at Mark Wahlberg's door late in the film, and then tops it later with his soft-shoed comments about the book club. The duo are just charming together, and their genuineness gives the movie its heart, making the relationship arc play as if it's not the required story cog that it surely was.
The parade of guest stars (aside from Wahlberg, Wiig, and Ruffalo, James Franco, Mila Kunis, Ray Liotta, Olivia Munn, and JB Smoove all pop up) manages not to distract; instead, it gives them new personalities to bounce off of--and gives some of them (like Smoove) the chance to take over the movie outright. Director Levy doesn't take any great risks, or do much to muscle out of the expected play-by-play of the narrative. But he makes a fun little movie, and provides a grinning showcase for his talented cast.
Date Night is a good old-fashioned action/comedy, and if the conception is by-the-books, the execution is sharp and frequently funny. It may not be a film comedy to equal their achievements on the small screen, but Carell and Fey bring considerable warmth and good cheer to the picture, which is a charming entertainment.
"Date Night" is available now on DVD and Blu-ray. For A/V and bonus feature details, read this review on DVD Talk.