Sunday, February 20, 2011

Due Date Movie Review: Missing the Mark

The road movie as a sub-genre is one of my favorites. The possibilities are great, with endless opportunities to mine the situation for both great comedy and high drama by putting two (or sometimes more) different personalities together on a journey can feel contrived when done poorly or expertly precise in the hands of a skilled writer and director. Todd Phillips, whose first movie was Road Trip, has returned to the road with two of the hottest ticket actors of the moment – Robert Downey, Jr. and Zach Galifianakis – for Due Date, a road movie modeled on John Hughes’ Plane, Trains and Automobiles with a man (Downey) trying to get home to his family while continually being tied to and hamstrung by an oafish buffoon (Galifianakis).

Downey plays Peter Highman, a man on his way home to Los Angeles and whose wife has a scheduled C-section in a few days. An encounter with and series of misunderstandings involving Galifiankis’s Ethan Trembley lands him on the no-fly list with his bags and wallet still on the plane from which he was ejected. Ethan, an aspiring actor on his way to Hollywood to pursue his dream after the death of his father, offers Peter a ride. From there it just goes off the rails, exhausting the humorous possibilities involving a dead man’s ashes in a coffee can, including a “good to the last drop” mishap in the home of Peter’s best friend, Darryl (Jamie Foxx).

Up to now, Phillips has provided successful comedies like The Hangover and Old School by keeping his characters just barely on the right side of what’s acceptable. Comedy has to balance very carefully on that line and he tips his characters over the edge in this film so that rather than laughing at something funny we often find ourselves laughing uncomfortably at jokes that are more mean-spirited than hilarious.

Peter has a bit of an anger control problem. This leads to several outbursts including one in which he slams Ethan’s head against the side of their car. Physical comedy including physical injury to a character can be quite funny – most often when the pain is self-inflicted or some kind of accident. Brutality is hard to sell for laughs. Likewise a scene involving a young child who is instructed by the script to be as annoying and disrespectful as possible in a way that moves quickly beyond believable to being a blatant play for outrageous humor. But when Peter punches the child in the gut, our shock does not dissolve into laughter, but rather deeper shock at the realization that not only did Phillips and his co-screenwriters (Alan Cohen and Alan Freedland of “King of the Hill” and Adam Sztykiel) think this was funny, but that surely there are people out there who agree with them.

Other scenes exhibit crassness for its own sake. A masturbation scene is creepy and uncomfortable – not funny. A verbal tirade directed at an Iraq veteran in a wheelchair is funny when we realize that Peter’s short fuse has finally done him in, but then it goes too far by having the disabled veteran beat Peter senseless.

If there’s anything that works well, it’s in the lead performances. Downey is completely believable in the straight man role. Although his character quirks may be overwritten, Downey rarely overplays them. Galifianakis is often riotously funny, but never more than in The Hangover, the film that put him on everyone’s radar. Ethan’s actions and comments are so bizarre, so inappropriate, and so downright insane that another actor might have played it crazy. Galifianakis keeps his weirdoes close to the hilt, never overselling it. He is so convincing in these roles I’m beginning to wonder if that’s simply how the man really behaves. Still, I imagine his shtick may start wearing thin soon.

Due Date is a bit of an unfortunate disaster, mostly inspiring me to wonder, “What were they thinking?”

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