There are those who can take the trippy, oblivious, big-bearded, man-baby humor of Zach Galifianakis only in small doses — an SNL sketch here, an online episode of Between Two Ferns there. Longer exposure leads to itchy discomfort. To them I say, don’t see Due Date. Because there’s a whole lot of cringe-inducing Galifianakis going on in this shaggy buddy caper, the latest cavalcade of male mayhem from director Todd Phillips, reunited with the production team that whipped up the record-breaking 2009 hit comedy The Hangover. (You remember Galifianakis in that shaggy buddy caper? He was the big-bearded man-baby wearing a smaller, smooth-cheeked actual baby strapped to his expansive chest.)
Me, I find the comedy of aggressive self-involvement liberating, at least when done by a skilled practitioner. And the hordes who have happily spent a quarter century in the home of Homer Simpson — not to mention fans eager for the return of the peerless aggravation of Larry David on Curb Your Enthusiasm — suggest there are plenty of others who savor the pained hilarity of bad behavior. To them I say, go see Due Date. But be prepared, on this particular gas-guzzling road trip, for potholes and speed bumps of superficial Caring Guy sentiment that derail the movie over the long-distance comic haul.
On his latest itinerary, the documentary-trained Phillips (who called his 2000 comedy-feature debut, well, Road Trip) has cast Galifianakis as an Atlanta-based budding thespian. This guy has permed his hair into corkscrew curls and changed his name to the inexplicably silly moniker Ethan Tremblay in anticipation of the middlebrow stardom he hopes to find in Hollywood. His dream job is to work on the infernal sitcom machine that is Two and a Half Men. Instead of an actual baby, Ethan totes a French bulldog — along with his late father’s ashes in a coffee can — as he prepares for a flight to Los Angeles. Robert Downey Jr. plays Peter Highman (another silly name, no?), an architect wound into equally tight corkscrews who’s also bound for the same flight from Atlanta home to L.A. Peter is in a hurry because his wife (Michelle Monaghan) is about to give birth to the couple’s first child.
(Aside: It’s kind of sweet, don’t you think, attaching the title Due Date, with its implications of childbirth. An uninformed browser might think there are women involved in the fun. The informed browser, on the other hand, remembers that the female universe in The Hangover consists of an uninteresting bride-to-be, a hateful girlfriend, and a nice stripper. Boys rule.)
The first fateful encounter between Ethan and Peter turns out to be the best, and the best-written, portion of Due Date. (Four guys, including Phillips, share credit for the wildly uneven screenplay — not counting Galifianakis’ ad-libs.) A sharply plotted introductory airport snafu showcases Ethan’s blithe, destructive cluelessness and Peter’s choked, supercilious impatience, allowing the stars to crank up their distinctive comedic personas to full throttle. It also kick-starts the chain-reaction plot, as Ethan and Peter are thrown off their flight and fated by the gods of odd-couple movies to take a rental-car drive west. Anyone who has recently survived the stresses of plane travel will appreciate how easy it is to snap from calm to apoplectic.
The unexpected pairing of Galifianakis and Downey is a pleasure — they’re an unlikely duo so off in their chemistry as to be bizarrely on. At this point in his singular career, Downey has shaped his disarming self-aware F-U stare to perfection, while Galifianakis has a knack for making his eyes simultaneously convey exasperating insensitivity and exasperating blamelessness. The two men seem to fascinate each other. But Atlanta to L.A. is a long drive, during which Phillips can’t decide whether to go for the raunchy (lots of masturbation jokes) or the mushy (Ethan really loved his simple old dad, but Peter has more conflicting emotions about his). And so by the time the pair admire the Grand Canyon (time for major mush) and then arrive at the hospital where Wifey is in labor (time for mush plus jokes), Due Date has lost its way, relying on its leading men to lead by charisma alone, even though their characters have nowhere interesting to go besides the happily-ever-after of dull, responsible male maturity. B-