Film takes road comedy in curious direction
‘Due Date’’ is a rather pat, occasionally desperate road comedy with Robert Downey Jr. and Zach Galifianakis. Downey plays Peter, a short-tempered, snobby architect who’s thrown off an Atlanta flight to Los Angeles when he and a fellow passenger — obnoxious aspiring-actor Ethan (Galifianakis) — are mistaken for terrorists. They’re placed on the no-fly list and forced to drive to Southern California fast enough for Peter to see his wife (Michelle Monaghan) deliver their baby, and for Ethan, who’s about 40, to start an acting career.
As is the way with such comedies, these two are oil and water. Peter appears to loathe Ethan. Ethan feels otherwise. But as the miles pass, they mix anyway.
I didn’t believe this movie. Which is not the same as saying I didn’t like it — although, there is that. Only about a quarter of the movie’s gags and shtick really work, often when other actors, like Juliette Lewis, Danny McBride, and Jamie Foxx, pitch in for a scene or two. What I didn’t believe is that Peter’s wife wouldn’t simply have found a less elaborate way to get him home. Had a scene been written in which he actually explains to her the preposterousness of his situation, the entire film would last 15 minutes.
The most interesting thing about “Due Date’’ is how deluded it is. This is a comedy of misunderstanding. The best scene happens early, when Peter and an airport security agent (RZA, hip-hop’s drollest comedian) squabble over what a terrorist seems like. The movie keeps finding ways to tweak misperceptions about race, class, patriotism, and paternity, always at Peter’s expense. Why couldn’t those same misapprehensions be turned on Peter and Ethan’s relationship?
In the opening minutes at the airport, Peter and Ethan make eye contact. Not just any eye contact but the sort of prolonged stare that Kathleen Turner might have given to William Hurt at some point in “Body Heat.’’ It’s not arousing, but it’s not completely empty, either. Though it could be that the meaning of such an exchange has changed, given how frequently it happens now between ostensibly straight men from “Pineapple Express’’ to almost anything with Paul Rudd, the vocabulary has certainly not. It signifies attraction.
Todd Phillips directed and cowrote “Due Date,’’ and in the past he’s had good ideas about how men relate to each other — through midlife-crisis nostalgia (“Old School’’) or post-hedonistic rue (“The Hangover’’) — even if the circumstances strained credibility. The relationships had a whiff of authenticity. This new movie seems afraid of the many perverse avenues down which it could traipse.
Ethan has a perm somewhere between Richard Simmons and the quip writer Bruce Vilanch. He says he wants to go to Hollywood, but everything about him, including the hairbrush that sticks out of his back pocket, suggests he’s already there: as a salon stylist on “Shear Genius.’’
“Due Date’’ actually goes out of its way to pull our legs. Ethan mentions sex he’s had with a woman. He thinks Shakespeare is a pirate. He wants to star on “Two and a Half Men.’’ And he’s an idiot stoner (the smoke screen is literal). When Ethan (and his French bulldog) masturbate, it’s alongside an appalled Downey — not with, at, or toward him.
Playing a specific human — even a stereotype — might give Galifianakis’s comedy some focus. Instead, this is another of his off-the-rack eccentrics that he merely threatens to redecorate. Downey, for his part, actually goes out of his way to tone down his usual swishiness. This is the straightest acting he’s done in years. And yet, amid the car crashes and vomiting and weed jokes, you wonder whether Phillips’s movie is a closet case. He’s made “Buddy Heat.’’
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.