The average fan of a Todd Phillips movie probably wouldn’t recognize his name or be able to pick him out of a lineup. This is surprising not only because he’s directed enough solid comedies to rival Judd Apatow (Road Trip, Old School, Starsky & Hutch, The Hangover), but because he’s appeared as some curly-headed oddball character in all of them. The Hangover is Phillips’ biggest critical and financial success (the sequel is shooting now) and along with that movie’s breakout star Zach Galifianakis the reason Due Date is sure to bring a big Box Office. In some ways Phillips’ latest feels a bit like the cocky follow up to a surprise hit, banking on names and humor and seeming just a bit too unconcerned with story. And so, like any number of comedies, Due Date is a Yin and Yang of solid, absurdist comedy and weak, mailed-in plot. Which way do the scales tip? Guess.
Robert Downey Jr. plays Peter Highman, an uptight, absurdly handsome and well-dressed architect prone to the occasional rage black out. When he meets Zach Galifianakis’ supremely annoying and occasionally mincing Ethan Tremblay, a routine trip to L.A. by airplane for the scheduled birth of Highman and his wife’s (Michelle Monaghan) son becomes a wacky, backwards, and wonderfully felonious excursion across the country. Any number of implausibly hilarious things happen, though, inasmuch as these very moments are the backbone of the film, I’ll allow you to find and appreciate them for yourself. Suffice it to say, hijinks ensue and lasting friendship is somehow born of the most dysfunctional pairing your local theater has ever seen! Or at least since Planes, Trains and Automobiles came to town.
The penultimate question for Due Date is “how much can Zach Galifiniakis’ humor carry a movie?” Surprisingly far actually. Despite a mediocre script and a collection of story beats that probably were pulled from a hat, Galifianakis is funny enough, and more importantly charming enough to make this film something more than it should have been. The fact is, as talented as Robert Downey Jr. clearly is, there’s very little happening here he had to work for. Unlike Tropic Thunder, where RDJ was pulling faces, mastering accents, and generally stealing the show, Due Date finds him mostly yelling a lot. Peter Highman is a (naturally) steamed up fellow, and Ethan Tremblay does just the right amount of car jerking off and accidental driving into Mexico to receive the brunt of Highman’s ire. But is that funny? Has it ever been all that funny to watch somebody get really, really mad? Nah. Particularly not at a character like Ethan Tremblay. Though a train wreck he may be, Ethan is far too sweet, far too child-like to have earned this sort of reckoning. Phillips’ narrative response to this odd couple pairing is to bring Peter and Ethan to a bromantically emotional resolution, however ill conceived and illogical it may be. It’s nice to see the two men hug it out and walk away BFF, but after all the crap that Ethan has pulled there’s simply no way to avoid a conclusion of, “wait…what?”
I mostly like Todd Phillips’ contributions to comedy, thinking fondly in particular of Old School. He, much like Apatow, gets right at the heart of “dude” relationships and how far guys are willing to go for each other. It’s a pleasant and often hilarious jumping off point. Here though he seems to be banking not only on his success at the Box Office with The Hangover, but on the audience’s interpretation of that film as Phillips’ masterpiece; the birth of his legacy. Due Date feels mailed in and sloppy, with almost too brief cameos from the likes of RZA, Juliette Lewis, Danny McBride and Jamie Foxx, and the marquee talent of Robert Downey Jr. Let me be clear: it’s not that this movie is bad, it’s that it’s not trying very hard. Luckily though for Todd Phillips, he has hitched his wagon to one of the most legitimately original and intriguing comedians we’ve seen in awhile. Zach Galifianakis is the real deal, and should be around for a long time. And thank God. There aren’t enough actors willing to mime masturbation in a car while Robert Downey Jr. tries to sleep next to them.