DATE NIGHT — ★★1/2 — Steve Carell, Tina Fey, Taraji P. Henson; rated PG-13 (violence, vulgarity, profanity, drugs, brief sex, slurs, nude art); in general release

This "Date Night" could have gone horribly awry.

After all, the film comes from director Shawn Levy, whose track record as a filmmaker is filled with more duds than hits. (His résumé includes "Just Married," "Cheaper by the Dozen" and the first "Pink Panther.")

And the film tries to mix domestic comedy with action-thriller elements, which isn't an easy thing to pull off.

Also, while star Steve Carell has done action before — in the "Get Smart" re-do — his co-star is Tina Fey, a comic actress known more for verbal humor and quips than for pratfalls.

Yet it works surprisingly well at times — the sole reason for that being the two TV stars.

Carell and Fey make a believable, likable on-screen couple. They play Phil and Claire Foster, the harried parents of two youngsters.

These New Jersey residents both work full-time jobs (he's an accountant, she's a real-estate agent) and between these commitments they have little time to rekindle their romance.

But once they discover that their married friends (Mark Ruffalo and Kristen Wiig) are divorcing, Phil and Claire decide to make more of an effort. He even plans a nice night on the town for them in Manhattan.

Unfortunately, the couple are mistaken for extortionists and suddenly find themselves on the run in the big city.

Though it's overplotted and contrived, this tale may remind some of the cultily adored "Adventures in Babysitting" (1987), as well as Martin Scorsese's little-seen but fondly remembered "After Hours" (1985), both of which put innocent characters in similar harm's way after making a bad decision.

Levy and screenwriters can't find nearly enough for the talented supporting cast (which includes Taraji P. Henson, Mark Wahlberg and Ray Liotta) to do, except act creepy and/or menacing.

It's also too crude in places — a stripclub sequence adds an unfortunate sleaziness to the film.

Yet for all the problems, Carell and Fey keep us interested in finding out what happens to their characters. We want them to make it out of Manhattan safely, and for them to have some actual fun.

By the way, it's worth it to stick around through the credits, which feature outtakes — mainly Carell flubbing his lines and Fey hilariously improvising and riffing. (Given how funny some of her observations are, you kind of wish the filmmakers had allowed her more freedom in that regard.)

"Date Night" is rated PG-13 and features some strong violent content (gunplay and a violent scuffle, and some vehicular mayhem), crude humor involving sexual and other bodily functions, occasional strong profanity (including one usage of the so-called "R-rated" curse word), various drug references (male-enhancement drugs, anesthetics and marijuana, see briefly), brief sexual contact and lewd dance moves, derogatory language and slurs (some based on sexual orientation and some of them sexist in nature), and glimpses of nude artwork (statues). Running time: 87 minutes.

e-mail: jeff@desnews.com