Steve Carell, Tina Fey and a budget - what more could you need to make a comedy?

Creativity and inspiration might have helped. But in "Date Night," director Shawn Levy (the "Night at the Museum" franchise) and screenwriter Josh Klausner have merely sketched out a slim premise and padded it with old jokes and soft action. This threadbare film somehow makes a sturdy enough noose to choke the life out of its stars.

Carell and Fey are Phil and Claire Foster, whose exhausting lives - dual income, dual child - have grown so dull that even their weekly date night (at a depressing New Jersey tavern) feels like a chore. They prefer sleep to sex, though neither wants to admit it. "I can rally," Claire says, thoroughly unconvincing.

When their married neighbors split up, Phil hears a warning. He whisks Claire to a trendy Manhattan restaurant and impulsively steals the table of a no-show party. The evening goes swimmingly - until two gunsels (Jimmi Simpson and rapper Common) haul the tipsy couple into an alley in a case of mistaken identity.

Fey and Carell, both character-driven comedians, are initially endearing, but they seem less comfortable with the movie's halfhearted slapstick. Their chemistry never quite ignites, and their improvised lines - usually their strong suit - mostly fall flat.

Other actors show up in well-worn roles: James Franco as a drug dealer, an uncredited Ray Liotta as a mob boss, Mark Wahlberg as a shirtless hunk. Talk about a dull routine. If only the filmmakers had followed the Fosters' example: A little effort might have saved things.

Back story: Like an old married couple

Steve Carell says his off-screen relationship with Tina Fey is so solid that he's reminded of his own wife, Nancy.

"She's a lot like Tina, you know, really smart and really funny. We're not wacky all the time, but we enjoy each other's sense of humor, and I always will go to her as a barometer for what might work and what might not," Carell told " came pretty naturally. I've been a fan of hers for a while and . . . we just sort of clicked with each other and became friends."

Like an old married couple, Carell and Fey repeat each other's one-liners. After Carell told reporters earlier this week at "Date Night's" Manhattan premiere that his best date night was "the Oscars this year," Fey told, "A lot of times Steve and I have this comment that the only time we have a fancy date with our spouses is if we go to the Oscars."

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