Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Due Date (2010)

Due Date is not an enjoyable movie, and for a comedy that’s a huge problem. Essentially a Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987) re-hash, the film stars Robert Downey Jr. as Peter Highman, an uptight, soon-to-be family man traveling cross country with an overweight oaf named Ethan Tremblay, and played by Zach Galifianakis. There are no trains involved, but you’ll find many of the same jokes and stabs at masculine endearment, as well as the jerk-idiot dynamic most recently updated in Dinner for Schmucks (2010). But the story’s familiarity and repetitive nature are problems good movies can overcome… and Due Date doesn’t.

Occasionally funny and mildly interesting, director Todd Phillips’ follow-up to The Hangover (2009) is decidedly blasé – passable entertainment with a few inspired moments, most of which you’ve seen in the trailers. It isn’t a bad movie, but it is unremarkable. Phillips worked a comedy miracle with The Hangover, a pure-fun blockbuster with a chance of securing a shelf spot in the Comedy Hall of Fame. Due Date would seem a lackluster follow-up, and an avoidable one, if Phillips and co. had stuck to their “let’s have a party” formula for success. Instead, Due Date brings the party either down a notch, or over the hill into the sobering reality that life is, occasionally, a bitch, and often chalk full of bitchy people. Tonally Phillips’ movie suffers under this weight, and can’t find the balance of comedy and heart it strives for.

The problem is in the likeability of its leads – or the essential lack thereof – and the ultimately irritable (and modern American?) atmosphere they foster. Usually, both Downey Jr. and Galifianakis are entirely enjoyable. RDJ has reemerged from Hollywood exile as a suave, quippy leading man and Galifianakis’ particular offbeat tact is blessed with an endearing naturalness that, even when stretched to over-the-top antics, never feels as intense as those of funny men like of Jim Carey, Eddie Murphy or even Chris Farley. On paper, they’re a good pair.

But also on that paper is a script, written by Alans Cohen and Freedland, and re-written by Adam Sztykiel and director Phillips. And in that script lies a wicked nature, an ass-hole-as-comedy approach to story that maintains Peter as an uptight jerk-off just this side of unredeemable, and Ethan as, really, just a completely useless idiot. They’re a hard pair to root for, but an easy pair to watch suffer, which is what all those writers are banking on. And that works, to a point. And then it doesn’t.

In movies, and in stories in general, we want heroes. We want somebody to believe in, to care for, or somebody we’d want to hang out with, if only because they’d make us laugh. We want people who are relatable, desirable, or both. Which is why if your leads can easily be named Idiot and Jerk, it’s important that those titles run only skin deep. In Planes, Trains we dig under that first layer to find human beings. In Schmucks, we get Paul Rudd as a guy that makes a lot of very bad decisions, but is ultimately trying to do the right thing. And he’s paired with a man who may actually be an alien, but a loyal, sympathetic and good-hearted one.

In Due Date, Peter rarely cares about doing the right thing, and Ethan is, fundamentally, a grieving buffoon. There’s no depth to either one of them, and no desire within the audience to dig in and find it.

But that’s just the script-psychology of it all. Fundamentally, the point is this – the movie isn’t funny enough to overcome its flaws. And in comedy, that’s the biggest flaw of all.

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