Pop Culture

Fey and Carell’s ‘Date’ seems like a sure thing

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.

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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."

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."

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.

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.

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