A date gone wrong is hard to watch — just painful, really. You expect your date, at the very least, to be funny and at least a bit charming. An evening of all-out thrills isn’t required. All that’s really needed is some spark, something, anything, to keep things interesting. Dial down expectations for your date as far as they will go: At the very, very least, your date shouldn’t make you fall asleep.

“Date Night”

At Quality 16 and Showcase
20th Century Fox

How about a date with comedy superstars Steve Carell and Tina Fey? TV’s Michael Scott and Liz Lemon, together onscreen for 90 minutes, and the only thing they’re expected to do is be themselves — be funny. They’d actually have to try if they wanted to fail at that.

Which makes it difficult to explain why a movie called “Date Night,” consisting solely of the two of them playing Phil and Claire Foster, a married couple running around New York City and getting into wacky shenanigans, isn’t as funny as it sounds. “Date Night” is dull, plain and simple. It just drags along, slower than any other high-profile comedy in recent memory, and it ruins the date nights of any couples that happen to be in the audience.

Perhaps director Shawn “The Pink Panther” Levy is the one who killed the funny. He does, after all, have some notoriety in Hollywood for his overly sanitized, bland big-budget comedies — although the first “Night at the Museum” was plenty entertaining.

Or maybe writer Josh Klausner simply doesn’t know how to craft an engaging script. His only other significant credit is “Shrek the Third,” which he shares with over a dozen other names. And really, the story here had some great potential: There are shades of Hitchcock’s lighter, “North by Northwest” side in the tale of a couple who inadvertently become caught up in criminal activity after taking someone else’s dinner reservation. It would be easy to simply chalk the failure of “Date Night” up to Klausner’s inability to find anything interesting for his characters to do once the concept has been established.

This overlooks the real problem of the film, though, and that problem is Carell and Fey themselves. As silly as it may sound, the two actors are way outside their comfort zones playing ordinary, upper-middle-class suburban parents. The two of them are (usually) rip-snortingly hilarious when they’re on TV playing exaggerated character types. On the big screen, as characters with no over-the-top quirks and no crazy ambitions, they can’t pull it off.

Take Carell. He’s funny on “The Office” because he’s playing a grotesque parody of a working-class suburbanite. Michael Scott’s day-to-day workplace interactions don’t have any ground in reality, and they’re not meant to. In “Date Night,” he’s severely toned back, to the point where he’s just an average schlub who occasionally blurts out embarrassing things. In other words, they took a deliberately subversive sitcom character and made him into a run-of-the-mill sitcom character.

Fey, sadly, fares even worse, and it’s because her inseparable “30 Rock” job is completely at odds with her character here. After spending four years playing a perpetually lonely, career-driven woman who wants children more than anything, suddenly she has bland, obnoxious kids and becomes frustrated and spiteful toward them in the first five minutes of the film. The rest of the time she’s too grounded in reality to make good use of the absurdist shtick she does so well; there are no Mexican Cheetos obsessions for Fey’s character here.

The jokes that do appear get rammed into the ground. Carell and Fey bicker about their marriage at the most inopportune moments. Mark Wahlberg never puts on a shirt. And everyone in New York is deeply appalled at the idea of taking another couple’s dinner reservation.

It’s a bad sign when your date keeps telling the same sort-of-funny anecdote over and over. There’s no future in that relationship.

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