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Image: "Date Night"
20th Century Fox
Steve Carell and Tina Fey aren't exactly playing their television characters, Michael Scott and Liz Lemon, in "Date Night," but the roles don't look to be enormous departures.
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msnbc.com contributor
updated 4/19/2010 10:31:55 PM ET 2010-04-20T02:31:55
COMMENTARY

At first glance, "Date Night" seems like a great idea — maybe even a perfect one. What's not right about a high-energy comedy starring Steve Carell and Tina Fey? They share much of their comedic DNA and feel like an already formed pair in pop-culture terms: They play perpetually single, socially awkward bosses in back-to-back, Emmy-winning Thursday-night workplace sitcoms. They're both silly — they even studied being silly at the same place: Second City in Chicago.

So why wouldn't they be in a movie together? In fact, doesn't it seem like they should have already been in one?

There's no question that Fey and Carell are both funny and talented actors. And in the trailer, they're doing a lot of the same things that make them funny on television. It might not be Liz Lemon married to Michael Scott, but these are clearly not enormous departures. In fact, this looks like a fairly straightforward test of how tweaked versions of their TV personalities might transfer to movies. In fact, just putting them together links them back to television, to Thursday nights, to NBC.

(Msnbc.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC.)

In "Date Night," Fey and Carell play the Fosters, a pair of bored parents who hijack a dinner reservation and wind up, the trailer suggests, in all the usual situations that arise during a long and crazy night taking place in a movie. They run from bad guys, they get into a car chase, they awkwardly bump into things. It's being sold as a suburban-adult twist on the out-all-night genre that has existed (only with teenagers) at least since "American Graffiti," right up through "Superbad."

Video: ‘Date Night’ stars on kissing and stripping It should be noted that for a project trying to commercialize the appeal of a couple of pretty irony-drenched actors, the lineage here is, for lack of a better phrase, very square. How square? Well, "Date Night" is directed by Shawn Levy, who did both "Night at the Museum" outings as well as the Steve Martin remakes of both "Cheaper by the Dozen" and "The Pink Panther." It was written by Josh Klausner, who also wrote "Shrek the Third."

More of a mainstream comedy
“Date Night” isn’t a kids' movie (it's PG-13), but it's from guys who like to fire at big, fairly mainstream targets and whose goal is mass appeal. These are not, based on their existing work, off-kilter oddballs like the people who work on "The Office" and "30 Rock." So the Fey/Carell comedy styles, which were developed for cringing, awkward adult comedies, are being translated for big, slapstick-embracing audiences.

Of the two, Carell has come closer to doing this before. He made supporting appearances in films like "Bruce Almighty" and "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy" before making his big (giant, enormous) splash in 2005's "The 40-Year-Old Virgin."

Video: 'Date Night': April 9

Since then, it's been a little from column A and a little from column B when it comes to stretching artistically and pleasing audiences. He showed dramatic chops in both "Little Miss Sunshine" and "Dan in Real Life," neither of which made outrageously big bucks. His crowd-pleasing comedies such as "Get Smart" and "Evan Almighty" have done all right, but he's not a comedy producer's license to print money, the way it seemed like he might become after "Virgin."

Here, by playing neither a spy nor a modern-day Noah, Carell is staying in accessible comedy, but playing a character who's a little straighter and simpler — a little more ordinary, which is what he's so good at.

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Given the connections to those Steve Martin remakes, it's worth noting — and those who hate what happened to Martin somewhere around "Father of the Bride" will feel their blood run cold — that for Steve Carell's movie career, it's very reasonable for him to ask whether being the next late-model Steve Martin is one of his options, and this movie will provide some early indicators.

Fey has shown up in only a couple of widely seen films before now: She had supporting roles in "Mean Girls" and "The Invention of Lying." She's been counted on to sell a movie only once, when she and Amy Poehler headed up "Baby Mama" — which did fine, but hardly set the world on fire either critically or commercially. More than Carell, she tends to stick to a type, and her character in "Date Night" looks a lot like the women she's played in the past — a long-suffering bumbler, smarter than her bumbling suggests.

In fact, the oddest thing about seeing Fey in this trailer is seeing her as a settled and married mom when so much of Fey's traditional comedy calling cards — in both "30 Rock" and "Baby Mama" — came from jokes about how she can't make heads or tails out of relationships, ever. But even if the character is married instead of single, this still feels like a more familiar Fey than "Baby Mama" did.

It's much harder, it seems, for Hollywood to come up with great stuff for comic actresses of this vintage than it is with actors. The women who are successful in comedy when they're 40-ish tend to be women like Sandra Bullock and Julia Roberts, who specialize in romantic banter leading to a happy ending.

This is not, thus far, a strength area for Tina Fey, nor is there any indication that she wants it to be. If "Date Night" does well, not only will it undoubtedly help her and "30 Rock," but it might make it more likely that the Bullock resurgence of 2009 will feed more opportunities for women who don't specialize in romantic comedies, but simply in comedies, where they often get squeezed out or are stuck playing best friends to romantic leads (ask Judy Greer, who has been a romantic comedy BFF more times than she probably cares to count).

It used to be that jumping from TV to movies and back was much more difficult than it is now. That door only swung one way, and if you tried and failed, you were a laughingstock. It's much easier to be a guy like Carell — or like John Krasinski, or like Tracy Morgan — who can go off and do movies and still have a TV career that can still feed you right back into your movie career. There's no expectation that if you're doing movies, you should quit your show, or if you want to keep your show, you shouldn't expect to do many movies.

But "Date Night" may be an opportunity for two of television's most prominent funny people to figure out whether what works in a half-hour comedy will work in a feature-length film.

Linda Holmes is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com.

© 2013 msnbc.com.  Reprints

Photos: Tina Fey

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  1. Staying classy

    From her days with Chicago’s "Second City" to stardom with "Saturday Night Live" and "30 Rock," the writer, actor, comedian and producer just keeps making people laugh.

    Tina Fey and husband Jeff Richmond attend the "Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues" premiere in New York on Dec. 15, 2013. (Cindy Ord / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Glowing at galas

    Tina Fey arrives at the 65th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards at Nokia Theatre L.A. Live in September 2013. On Jan. 12, 2014, Fey will host the 71st Annual Golden Globe Awards with comedian and actress Amy Poehler. (Jason Merritt / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. A grand finale

    Tina Fey appears as Liz Lemon in the series finale of “30 Rock,” which aired on Jan. 31, 2013. Over the course of seven seasons, “30 Rock” was nominated for more than 100 Emmy awards. (Nbc / Ali Goldstein/NBC) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. A win for Liz Lemon

    Tina Fey poses in the press room at the 19th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards in Los Angeles on Jan. 27, 2013. Fey won for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Comedy Series for her role in “30 Rock.” (Albert L. Ortega / Getty Images Contributor) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Funny friends

    Tina Fey and Amy Poehler hosted the Golden Globe Awards together for the first time on Jan. 13, 2013. Their hilarious performance and easy rapport got them invited back for another hosting gig in 2014. (Handout / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Queen of comedy

    Tina Fey accepts an award onstage from actor Will Arnett at The Comedy Awards 2012 at Hammerstein Ballroom in New York on April 28, 2012. (Theo Wargo / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Another glam night

    Fey arrives at the 84th Annual Academy Awards at the Hollywood & Highland Center in Hollywood, Calif., on Feb. 26, 2012. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. It's not Saturday night

    Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin perfom in a live episode of "30 Rock" in 2012. (NBC) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Liz and Jenna

    Fey (Liz Lemon) and "30 Rock" costar Jane Krakowski (Jenna Maroney) arrive at the 18th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles on Jan. 29, 2012. (Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Her mini me

    Fey and daughter Alice attend the HBO Luxury Lounge in honor of the 69th annual Golden Globes at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverlin Hills, Calif., on Jan. 14, 2012. (Chelsea Lauren / WireImage) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Weekend anchors

    Fey and actress Amy Poehler arrive at the 13th Annual Warner Bros. and InStyle Golden Globe After Party held at The Beverly Hilton hotel on Jan. 15, 2012. (Jon Kopaloff / FilmMagic) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Expecting No. 2

    Fey unveiled her baby bump during a visit to "Late Show With David Letterman" at the Ed Sullivan Theater in New York on April 11, 2011. Her second daughter, Penelope, was born on Aug. 10, 2011. (Donna Ward / Getty Images Contributor) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Author

    Fey signs copies of her book, "Bossypants," at Barnes & Noble Union Square in New York on April 8, 2011. (Jim Spellman / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Happy anniversary!

    Cast members from the NBC's "30 Rock" television show, including front row from left, Jack McBrayer, Fey, Alec Baldwin, Jane Krakowski and Tracy Morgan celebrate the 100th episode taping at Silver Cup Studios in New York on March 10, 2011. (Evan Agostini / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Rocking '30 Rock'

    Fey stars as comedy writer Liz Lemon in "30 Rock," based on her experiences writing for "Saturday Night Live." While ratings are low, the show is a critical favorite, and received Emmy Awards for outstanding comedy series in 2007, 2008, and 2009. (NBC) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Out on the town

    Fey teams with another comic powerhouse, Steve Carell, in 'Date Night." They play a suburban couple whose regular night out turns into an adventure beyond their wildest dreams. (20th Century Fox) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Mommy's little girl

    Fey walks with her daughter, Alice Richmond, to toy store FAO Schwarz on March 9, 2010 in New York. Fey returned to work just six weeks after Alice was born. Fey's husband, Jeff Richmond, is a composer on "30 Rock." (Ray Tamarra / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Rain, rain, go away

    Fey arrives at the 67th Annual Golden Globe Awards on a rainy January day in 2010. She and "30 Rock" were both nominated for awards, but neither won. (Jason Merritt / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Cover girl

    Fey graced the March 2010 cover of Vogue Magazine. While working on "Saturday Night Live," Fey says she lost 30 pounds after seeing herself in a role as an extra, and notes that suddenly there was a lot more interest in putting her on the air. She has been named to People Magazine's 50 Most Beautiful People list in 2003, and to its 100 Most Beautiful People list in 2007, 2008, and 2009. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Golden gal

    Fey presented an award at the 2010 Academy Awards, held on March 7, 2010, in Los Angeles. Her sparkly black gown is by Michael Kors. (Jason Merritt / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Truth will out

    Fey starred along with Rob Lowe, Ricky Gervais and Jennifer Garner in 2009's "The Invention of Lying," which takes place in an alternate reality where even the concept of a lie does not exist. (Warner Bros. Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Writing right

    Fey accepts the Emmy award for outstanding writing for a comedy series for "30 Rock" at the 60th annual Primetime Emmy Awards in Los Angeles on Sept. 21, 2008. (Lucy Nicholson / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. 'I can see Russia from my house!'

    Fey had already left "Saturday Night Live," but she returned during the run-up to the 2008 presidential election, playing vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, with Amy Poehler as Sen. Hillary Clinton. Fey's Palin impression earned her headlines everywhere, and some people even confused some of her joke lines with Palin's real comments. (NBC) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Oh, baby!

    In 2009's "Baby Mama," Fey and Poehler team up for a comedy about Poehler's character serving as a surrogate mother for Fey. The movie received mixed reviews. (Universal Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Comedy inside a comedy

    Joining Fey in "30 Rock" are co-stars Tracy Morgan as Tracy Jordan and Alec Baldwin as Jack Donaghy. The show has especially helped revitalize Baldwin's career, as his performance as the blustering network boss Donaghy has been widely praised. (Mitch Haaseth / NBC) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. You like us! You really like us!

    The cast of "30 Rock" poses in the pressroom with their Emmy for outstanding comedy series on Sept. 16, 2007 in Los Angeles. (Kevin Winter / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Giving back

    Fey speaks during the 2005 Do Something BRICK Awards April 19, 2005 in New York. The BRICK Awards honor leaders age 25 and under who have created innovative solutions to problems in their local communities in the areas of community building, health, and the environment. (Scott Gries / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Don't be 'Mean'

    Fey wrote and co-starred in the 2004 comedy "Mean Girls," based in part on the book "Queen Bees and Wannabes" and in part on Fey's own Pennsylvania high-school days. (Paramount Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. The 'Girls'

    Fey and "Mean Girls" star Lindsay Lohan attend a private screening of the film on April 23, 2004 at Loews Lincoln Square Theater, in New York. Entertainment Weekly listed the film on its end-of-the-decade best-of list. (Paul Hawthorne / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Live, from New York

    Fey and Jimmy Fallon are seen co-anchoring "Weekend Update" on "Saturday Night Live" in 2004. Fey joined "SNL" in 1997 and was promoted to head writer in 1999. (NBC) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Make 'em laugh

    Fey, Ben Affleck, Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph and Rachel Dratch pose backstage at the 5th Annual Directors Guild Of America Honors at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel September 29, 2004 in New York. (Peter Kramer / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. Classy couple

    Fey and composer Jeff Richmond dated for seven years before marrying in 2001. (James Devaney / WireImage) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. Before fame

    After graduating from the University of Virginia in 1992, Fey moved to Chicago to take classes at the improvisational comedy group The Second City. She's seen here in 1997 during her days as a featured player with the organization. That same year, she joined "SNL," and her career began to take off. (AP file) Back to slideshow navigation
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