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Marriage, it can be said, too often starts with a sizzle and ends with a fizzle.

In “Date Night,” Phil and Claire Foster come face-to-face with this sentiment, watching their friends grow bored and tired in their marriages and get divorces, claiming they’ve become nothing more than “excellent roommates.”

What happened to the love? What happened to the passion, the excitement, the romance? They got replaced by routine. And for the Foster’s friends, that’s reason enough to forget their vows and fly the coop.

But is it reason enough for the Fosters? Or can the magic be recaptured?

In this expectedly funny, but unexpectedly touching film, comedy superstars Steve Carell and Tina Fey play a married couple who on the spur of the moment endeavor to break out of the rut and try something new, a trip into the city to a trendy, upscale restaurant.

But when they take someone else’s reservation to get into the packed eatery, the name they take leads to a case of mistaken identity, danger, intrigue, hilarity, revealing discussions on the nature of marriage … and … pole-dancing strippers.

Whoops.

The reality is, what could have been a really good movie was trashed by dragging its characters through the gutter to a den of sex and sleazeballs. And not just for a brief scene, but for a 20-minute-long running gag, the Fosters find themselves stooping to the lowest possible levels allowed in a PG-13 film (how in the world can the MPAA not give this an R rating?) to catch the bad guys and clear their names. They even join in with their soft-porn surroundings, doing some pole dancing, floor humping and “sex robot” moves – albeit played for comedic effect – while the real professionals carry on their sultry stuff in the background.

Toss in a few orgy references, some junior-high chuckles about masturbation, and it appears the makers of “Date Night” just couldn’t muster the writing skills to rise above dirty jokes.

But that wouldn’t … quite … be accurate.

For cast into these tawdry situations is a convincing couple dealing with very real – if not very exciting – struggles common to many married folk. And the message is worth examining.

In the midst of the Fosters’ thrilling escape from the bad guys, Phil Foster pulls over the sports car they stole for a sudden and too-long-in-coming talk with his wife, Claire.

In a frank and believable conversation, they power through questions of commitment and fidelity, unspoken sexual desires, latent frustrations with the status quo and the kind of stuff married couples ought to talk a lot more about.

It leads to a shocking and politically incorrect revelation: A big reason for the boredom, for the lack of adventure, for the dearth of romance … is that the husband isn’t allowed to be a white knight in shining armor. His wife won’t let him.

Claire is master and keeper of the home, in charge of the family, micromanaging every detail, an insecure woman building a cocoon of stable predictability around herself. As a result, she has effectively snuffed out her husband’s adventurous side, his conquering nature, his inner warrior – she has essentially stripped him of everything that might make him exciting or romantic.

“Let me surprise you,” Phil is left to plead. “I really think I would.”

Several good authors today, of books like “Wild at Heart” and “Why Men Hate Going to Church,” are pointing to the need to allow married men in particular to rediscover masculinity. Give a man a cubicle, a mortgage and a minivan, they argue, and is there any wonder wives find their husbands dull and routine?

Marriage isn’t the killer of romance, but our modern-day, emasculating definition of it may be.

In the end, of course, Phil indeed shows his wife that he can surprise her, that he can be the hero of her adventure, the knight of romance. And not even a buff and shirtless Mark Wahlberg can compete with a man who not only rescues his princess and vanquishes the enemy, but can then declare in all honesty, “I’d do it again – you, me, the kids, everything. I choose you, every time.”

A shining knight with a bad boy streak, grounded by commitment and devotion to his wife and his wife alone – Phil is quite the romantic after all. And a pretty good catch. And a pretty good lesson.

It’s just too bad the battlefield had to take place in a strip joint, otherwise “Date Night” would be a great movie for a … well … a date night.

Content advisory:

  • As mentioned above, “Date Night” is filled with sexual innuendo, near nudity, and lewd jokes. The strip club scenes are particularly graphic.
  • The film contains several profanities and uses of “O God” as exclamations.
  • Violence consists of gunshots, a mugging scene, an extended car chase with the expected crashes and a guy getting smacked with an oar.
  • The film has no religious content or noticeable occult content, though there may have been something in the strip club (I admit, my eyes were diverted from the screen for much of the scene).

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