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Todd Phillips’ follow-up to the most successful R-rated comedy of all time serves up its share of laughs while not actually providing a terribly enjoyable time because of a queasy undercurrent that never goes away. The pairing of live-wire Robert Downey Jr. with the slow-burning Zach Galifianakis strikes enough wild sparks to make this unendearing road trip a potent, if not sensational, late-fall commercial comedy for Warner Bros.
The film’s comic linchpin also is its greatest liability: Galifianakis’ clueless loser Ethan Tremblay represents a one-man plague carrier of Murphy’s Law. Disaster accompanies this uncouth wannabe actor everywhere as if it’s gum stuck to his shoe and woe be to any innocent bystander unlucky enough to land in his path. You’d think Downey’s harried and preoccupied architect Peter Highman, whose wife is about to give birth in Los Angeles, would be smart enough to recognize this after a couple of disruptive collisions with him at the Atlanta airport, so there’s a degree to which one irrevocably turns against Downey’s character when he fails to heed the bright flashing lights and alarm bells warning him that he should take a taxi all the way back to Los Angeles rather than ride with Ethan once the latter has contrived to land him on the no-fly list.
“Due Date” is patterned as a sort-of “Planes, Trains & Automobiles” without the railroad, so the viewer, like the discomfited Peter, who’s suddenly missing his luggage, I.D. and credit cards, must face the prospect of spending a protracted period with this dumpy bearded guy who sports a perm and carries with him a French bulldog and the ashes of his father in a coffee can. It’s Oscar and Felix stuck in a car together for three days, except for the fact that that the irritation is not mutual but monumentally one-sided; almost nothing phases Ethan, especially after he has stocked up on smokable “glaucoma medication” courtesy of a trashy home grower (Juliette Lewis). Peter will have none of this, claiming, “I’ve never done drugs in my life,” a tad too obvious an in-joke coming from the actor in question.
Once he grudgingly settles in for the long ride from Georgia to California, Peter learns more than he really wants to know about his unwanted companion, beginning with Ethan’s inspiring admission that, ” ‘Two and a Half Men’ is the reason I wanted to be an actor.” Peter’s frustration triggers its own share of problems — his pissing off a Western Union clerk (Danny McBride) he’s trying to get to help him is a particular highlight — but by and large, Ethan lives up to his promise by cutting a swath of catastrophe along Interstate 20 whether he tries or not. Among his achievements are — after a pit-stop visit with Peter’s old pal (Jamie Foxx) — creating grave doubt that Peter actually is the father of his wife’s about-to-be-born child, taking a turnoff that leads them over the border into Ciudad Juarez at night and getting Peter high anyway, along with the dog, when he lights up with all the car windows sealed shut.
The laughs come in abrupt bursts, but they’re not constant, convulsive or contagious; even for the ready and willing, “Due Date” doesn’t begin to rival “Hangover” for inventiveness or hilarity. But the sharp comic instincts and contrasting styles of the stars, who never are offscreen, keep the film alive despite the setup’s aggravations and familiarity.
Because Peter for a long time refuses to share any personal information, Downey is straight-jacketed from revealing much about his character. But the ever-resourceful actor comes up with a hundred ways to express exasperation, frustration and peevishness. As for Galifianakis, for a spell it appears that he might not go any further than creating a comic shell of defiant, even oblivious haplessness; fortunately, Phillips and his co-writers don’t sentimentalize Ethan’s innumerable deficiencies as they eke out just enough sympathy for the guy’s miserable existence to make him understandable, and Galifianakis emerges as a worthy Hardy to Downey’s Laurel. The wrap-up of his story once he gets to Hollywood is delightful.
Opens: Friday, Nov. 5 (Warner Bros.)
Production: A Warner Bros. release presented in association with Legendary Pictures/A Green Hat Films production
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Zach Galifianakis, Michelle Monaghan, Juliette Lewis, Jamie Foxx, Danny McBride, Rza, Matt Walsh
Director: Todd Phillips
Screenwriters: Alan R. Cohen, Alan Freedland, Adam Sztykiel, Todd Phillips
Story: Alan R. Cohen, Alan Freedland
Producers: Todd Phillips, Dan Goldberg
Executive producers: Thomas Tull, Susan Downey, Scott Budnick
Director of photography: Lawrence Sher
Editor: Debra Neil-Fisher
Production designer: Bill Brzeski
Costume designer: Louise Mingenbach
Music: Christophe Beck
Rated R, 95 minutes
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