Tina Fey and Steve Carell are two of our best comic actors, particularly of a Thursday night, when they each reign supreme for 30 minutes on NBC. Their first big-screen teaming was therefore something of a big deal to fans of top-notch sitcommery; one of those rare occurrences where for just a brief moment, you can get the feeling of being alive during the Golden Age of the studio system in the 1930s and 1940s, back when they used to try about once a year or so to pair two individually beloved stars to drag in the fanbase for both of them. Not that they don't still do that, mind; but something about Fey and Carell sharing the screen feels more like what it must have been like when Universal announced that it would be throwing W.C. Fields and Mae West together, just to see what would happen, and not like e.g. "Sandra Bullock + Ryan Reynolds = comedy gold".

Sadly, where My Little Chickadee had the great (if largely unsung) Eddie Cline in the director's chair, the Fey/Carell vehicle Date Night has to make do with Shawn Levy, a man who embodies the phrase "aggressively dull" like nobody's business. This is the fellow who managed to make not one but two unendurable films with Steve Martin in "family-friendly" mode (Cheaper by the Dozen and The Pink Panther), and he's also the guiding hand behind the deeply uncompelling Night at the Museum flicks. If anybody was going to be able to fuck up a movie starring Tina Fey and Steve Carell, I'd trust Shawn Levy to be the man to do it - and coupled with the checkered movie careers of both actors (Fey in Baby Mama, Carell in a lot), it seemed right to dread Date Night, as a likely squandered promise that would do nothing but reiterate that some folks just can't make the hop from TV to cinema.

The reality is that Date Night is... well, it's not "good" according to just about any functional definition of that word. It's also not really "bad", in the sense that it's unpleasant to watch. On the contrary, it's funny, although not shoot-milk-out-your-nose funny. Cute and thinly amusing might be better descriptors, which is, I should point out, enough to make this by far the best film of Levy's career, though he deserves absolutely not a single ounce of credit (indeed, the scenes which rely the most on the director's craft - such as a slapstick car chase about two-thirds into the film - are fairly consistently the worst), nor does screenwriter Josh Klausner, who was a unit director for the Farelly brothers before he received a rather vague "additional screenplay material" credit on Shrek the Third. No sir, as far as Date Night works, it's due almost exclusively to Fey and Carell, who do a superhuman amount of work in dragging the funny out of a movie that doesn't readily yield much in the way of comedy.

In Date Night, they play the Fosters, Phil and Claire, a middle-aged couple with two kids living in suburban New Jersey, and much too comfortable in their routine. When one of their couple friends reveals that they're about to divorce, the Fosters are shocked not just out of sympathy, but from an uncomfortable realisation about their own stagnant existence, and so out of the blue one night, Phil decides that for their weekly dinner date, he shall take Claire to the hot new restaurant in New York, without checking first to make sure that there will be an open table. Of course there isn't, but Phil's cunning isn't done yet: when he observes that a party of two seems to have missed their reservation, he lies to the hostess that he and Claire are in fact the "Tripplehorns", and so wins a table; except that the Tripplehorns have gotten themselves into some hot water with a pair of thugs, who drag Phil and Claire out of the restaurant demanding a stolen flash drive, and thus are the Fosters plunged into an action-packed night running across the city, trying to stay alive until they can figure out what the hell is going on. In the process, of course, their romance is rekindled from a smokey ember to a burning fire; it's basically North by Northwest cut together with Mr. & Mrs. Smith (not the Hitchcock one).

A lot of this doesn't work: Levy's direction of the numerous action-heavy moments is terrifically uninspired, and there's a lot of this 88-minute movie that drags on quite badly. Most everything that isn't focused on Phil and Claire fails utterly: despite a surprisingly large collection of cameos from some very talented people, I can't think of a single one of them who made me laugh or even smile, beyond the simplest level of "My God, that's _____!" But then you've got Fey and Carell, and they are magnificent: not given much to work with, and thus they cannot reach the heights of their best performances, but far, far better than they have any right to be. The outtakes during the end credits (almost invariably a sign of a desperate studio comedy, Pixar's parodies of the form notwithstanding) prove something that it's fairly easy to assume beforehand, which is that the two comedians did a goodly amount of improvising in the course of shooting the film, and it's telling that the biggest laugh in the movie actually comes during one of these outtakes.

Still, whether it was scripted and directed to be funny, or whether it's funny just because the actors will it so, Date Night is still funny, and that's ultimately what counts. Would I have liked it if the film were honestly good, and funny? Of course. But these are degraded times for film comedy, and any port will do in a storm, even if the port is kind of ramshackle and ugly. Beyond that, Fey and Carell have tremendous chemistry: it's perfectly easy to believe not only that they've been married for a decade or better, but also that they still have a real, if buried, spark of erotic attachment to each other. This, too, is not so common that it shouldn't be held up for praise: I'm sure we've all seen a fair number of romantic comedies where the lovers are together because they are required to be, and not because it seems that they yearn for each other (Ryan Reynolds + Sandra Bullock ≠ teh comedy goldz, in case you were wondering).

It's enough to make you hope for a future project in which Fey and Carell act against each other with the benefit of a strong screenplay - perhaps one written by Fey herself, who seems way too famous and popular as a writer to have no film scripts to her credit since Mean Girls. But in the meantime, Date Night is all we've got; and at least it's decent and amusing enough that it doesn't hurt to watch it. If that doesn't sound like praise, I guess that's because it's really not; but it's also not a condemnation, and at any rate, the film is undeniably a lot better than it easily could have been.