(CNN) -- The evening starts out with some promise: Phil and Clare Foster (Steve Carell and Tina Fey) head out into the big city resolved to reignite the spark and revive their marriage. They talk their way into the hottest restaurant in Manhattan, eat well, drink better -- and then their date night spontaneously combusts right before their eyes.
We know exactly how they feel. So long as Carell and Fey are picking apart a fond but stale marriage we seem to be in very good hands -- they're a perfect, if snide, couple, and any marrieds with a couple of unruly kids and too much work will sympathize with their predicament here.
But the moment, less than 15 minutes in, when "Date Night" shifts gears from the kind of observational character comedy both performers do so well on television and swerves into an "After Hours"-style comedy thriller, is also the point where this star vehicle lurches right off the road.
There's nothing wrong with the concept mind you, it's the execution that's lacking.
"Date Night" is a variation on the "wrong man" scenario that furnished Alfred Hitchcock with some of his best movies: "North by Northwest" for one. Hitchcock was famously unconcerned with explanations. We all know the crop-duster sequence and the shootout on Mount Rushmore, but who remembers now what secrets James Mason may have been smuggling? The why never mattered, only the how: Hitch was obsessed with the mechanics of suspense and he knew that to build it, he had to stay a step ahead of us.
Director Shawn Levy ("A Night in the Museum") and screenwriter Josh Klausner ("Shrek the Third") don't have that kind of application or craftsmanship, or even the modicum of ingenuity that might keep things interesting.
Three times the Fosters return to the door of one of Claire's real estate clients, who just happens to have a home office equipped with cutting edge spy gear. The first time, it's funny: The client is played by a bare-chested and flirty Mark Wahlberg, and Carell's discomfort undercuts the scene's contrivance. But there's not enough going on between them to sustain a running gag, and the return visits only expose the filmmakers' idea drought.
Like the recent Jennifer Aniston misfire, "The Bounty Hunter," "Date Night" makes the fundamental miscalculation that a hand-me-down plot will look after itself while the actors goof in the foreground. It's a fatal error, because a sense of danger invariably sharpens our laughter, and because audiences still care about stories there's no bigger turn-off than a storyteller who doesn't.
Levy engineers one innovative set piece, a chase in which the getaway car becomes enmeshed with the front grill of a yellow cab after a head-on collision, the two autos speeding through intersections, one going forwards, the other in reverse, with the heavies in hot pursuit. It's a novel sequence, but virtually the only excitement in the movie's labored run-in.
Nothing in "Date Night" makes much sense if you think about it for more than a second or two, but Levy seems to have concluded his audience won't be making that mistake, and on that score he may well be right. As for the gags, they could have used some.