REVIEW: Fine Performances from Downey, Galifianakis Can't Bring Due Date to Term
Todd Phillips' Due Date is a massive wedgie of a comedy, which is to say it's a comedy of extreme discomfort -- it's so unnerving, in fact, it sometimes seems more like an experimental theater piece than a mainstream entertainment.
Maybe, potentially, that could be a good thing. But in the case of Due Date, it isn't. Robert Downey Jr. is Peter Highman, a snappish, ill-tempered architect who's on his way from Atlanta to Los Angeles for the imminent birth of his first child. Peter has barely arrived at the airport when a stubby, overfriendly bearded guy, wearing a vaguely artsy getup that suggests he's seen Rent too many times, begins throwing multiple wrenches into his best-laid plans: First he causes an embarrassing luggage switcheroo; then he gets Peter, and himself, thrown off the plane for being suspected terrorists. Peter's wallet has been left behind on the plane, leaving him unable rent a car. He's left to share a cross-country ride with the annoying little butterball who caused all his problems in the first place.
That butterball is aspiring actor Ethan Tremblay (he pronounces it "Trem-BLAY," with an affected deadpan flourish), and he's played by Zach Galifianakis; his sidekick is an adorably blasé vanilla-colored French bulldog named Sonny. Ethan appears to have been put on this Earth just to torture Peter, pestering him with questions, boring him with details about his desire to break into acting (his dream is to appear on Two and a Half Men), and sharing way, way too much information: "I once ate a foot-long corndog on a nude beach." He waits a beat before adding the strangely inconsequential kicker. "I'll never do that again."
Peter's job is to respond at first with exasperation and eventually with outright anger before, of course, warming up to his obnoxious new friend. It's Downey's job to play the foil to Galifianakis' wayward, mildly aggressive naif, and neither actor slacks on the job. Downey is such a responsive actor that he makes listening seem active. When Peter asks Ethan why he's carrying a coffee can around with him, Ethan explains that it contains the ashes of his recently deceased father. This information annoys Peter, who informs Ethan that most people put their loved one's ashes in urns. Ethan shoots back, indignantly, that the can is perfectly suitable -- after all, it's been vacuum-sealed. But even though Peter, now nearly apoplectic, points out that the seal was broken when the can was first opened, he can't win the argument: Ethan's role in the movie is to slowly grind him down, and unfortunately, we get ground down along with him.
That's neither actor's fault -- each seems perfectly clued in to the other's quirky timing. But Due Date (which was written by Alan R. Cohen, Alan Freedland, Adam Sztykiel and Phillips, from a story by Cohen and Freedland) is simply exhausting to watch. The pileup of scrapes and embarrassments Peter must endure includes a beating at the hands of an angry Iraq war veteran (Danny McBride) and a potentially fatal car accident caused by Ethan's falling asleep at the wheel. Along the way, Peter punches a bratty little kid in the stomach and spits in Sonny's face. His rage spiral is perhaps somewhat understandable; unfortunately, it's just not funny.
Phillips may be trying to say something profound about the fragility of friendships between men. Then again, maybe not -- and it's OK if he isn't. As Galifianakis plays him, Ethan is obviously gay, or at least just questioning. And the physical aspects of the performance are sometimes wonderful: Galifiankis is a sturdy guy, but he walks with a delicate bounce in his step that's kind of like a little dance -- it may be slightly exaggerated, but it doesn't come off as a gross affectation.
The idea, I suppose, is that Ethan is sending out vibes that would just naturally make a guy like Peter feel uncomfortable. But Due Date never does anything with that idea other than allowing it to sit there like a sodden lump. The plot is moved forward only by Peter's escalating aggravation, and his tantrums quickly become wearying to watch. As Phillips proved with The Hangover, he knows how to orchestrate madness. But watching Due Date, I not only stopped wondering what awful thing might happen next; I stopped caring. Once you lock into the movie's formula -- Ethan does something strange, awful or exceedingly dangerous; Peter responds by blowing his stack -- the movie's alleged craziness begins to seem more like sitcom predictability. Due Date isn't edgy; it's really just flat.