By Ann Hornaday
Friday, November 5, 2010
With "Due Date," director Todd Phillips perfects the particular brand of comic alchemy that made his 2009 comedy "The Hangover" such an unexpectedly huge hit. Like the previous film, this one features mismatched guys who don't know each other very well on a road trip punctuated by ever-more-outrageous and physically painful mishaps. Whereas "The Hangover" featured a baby in sunglasses as a cheap-laugh-getting prop, "Due Date" swaps the infant out for a little bulldog, who masturbates on cue with the flawless timing of Lassie performing for the next piece of kibble.
Of course, the main thing "Due Date" has in common with "The Hangover" is Zach Galifianakis, the portly comedian who, like Jackie Gleason and Chris Farley before him, betrays uncommon grace despite his heavy frame. There's a money shot early in "Due Date" when Galifianakis shoves his unsheathed, hairy stomach against Robert Downey Jr.'s face, but it's when the camera pulls back to reveal the burly, bearlike Galifianakis delicately bouncing along in peg-legged acid-wash jeans, tossing his mane of permed hair, that his physical gifts are best revealed. He's a hirsute, gloriously unself-conscious man-child, unfettered by the laws that govern the rest of us, including those of good taste, social interaction and gravity itself.
That pretty much sums up Ethan Tremblay, Galifianakis's character in "Due Date," which conspires to have Tremblay and architect Peter Highman (Downey) meet cute at the Atlanta airport, then embark on a cross-country car trip so that Peter can attend the birth of his first child. It's a concept that was no doubt pitched to studio executives in one elevator ride, and most likely that's why it works so efficiently. "Due Date" promises to be a hit with its core constituency, satisfying "Hangover" fans with the steady stream of slapstick gags, raunchy jokes, stoner comedy, crunching action and caustically aggressive male bonding they've come to expect from the Phillips atelier.
For all its formulaic predictability, though, "Due Date" possesses its share of surprises. For one thing, it's a departure for Downey, who plays the straight man here with convincing, deadpan self-effacement. (The movie's first laugh occurs when Peter tells an airport security guard that he has never done drugs in his life.) He knows his job is simply to be a foil for Galifianakis, and he graciously cedes center stage; there are moments when you can almost see Downey take a step back to admire his co-star's willingness to make Ethan look ridiculous, but never contemptible.
And "Due Date" is way darker than "The Hangover," constantly pushing Peter to a mean, physically threatening edge, then pulling him back. A "Cable Guy" brand of biting hostility bubbles through the movie, making it edgier and more dangerously compelling than garden-variety bromances. Ethan may be a naif in the tradition of Candide and other literary sweethearts, but his unworldliness carries its own potential for inflicting anarchic, even creepy violence.
One case in point is an encounter with an Iraq war vet played by Danny McBride; the scene that starts out full of comic promise but devolves into a brutal, unfunny beat-down. ("Due Date" also features cameos from Jamie Foxx and a wonderfully blowsy Juliette Lewis.) Later, when Peter and Ethan open up to each other about their fathers, Peter's heartfelt confession isn't met with a hug but a derisive bark of laughter. "Due Date" isn't pretty; in fact, it gets kind of ugly. But, at least in the eyes of certain beholders, therein lies its peculiar, bent beauty.
Contains profanity, drug use and sexual content.