The season of serious films is upon us. It’s time again for those earnest, honorable pictures that so like to quiet the room, just when you’re in a good conversational groove, to say, “Ladies and gentlemen, may we have your attention, please?” Which means, “May we have your award consideration, please?” It’s the major studio idea of autumnal solemnity.
“Due Date” is the joker who ignores that announcement, unsettling some and delighting others by muttering a funny, pissy tirade about what those serious films can go do with themselves.
It works from a familiar setup: Peter, an architect played by Robert Downey Jr., and Ethan, an aspiring sitcom star played by Zach Galifianakis, share a reluctant road trip from Atlanta to Los Angeles. Peter’s in a hurry to get home to his very pregnant wife (Michelle Monaghan). Ethan is, shall we say, less focused. All he has are his dreams, his French bulldog, and a coffee can full of his recently deceased father’s ashes. It’s like an improv game: How long will they go, how far, how outrageously?
Answer: about an hour and a half, a few thousand miles, fairly. “Due Date” was scripted by director Todd Phillips and a bunch of writers with an apparently unanimous whatever-dude disregard for conventional character “growth” and story “logic.” It’s a movie in which an officious jerk gets increasingly fed up with an oblivious stooge, and neither man bothers much to improve his personality — just as border police don’t bother following up on their destroyed property and stolen vehicles. It gets by just fine on its stars’ contrasting charisma, with added flecks of mirth from Jamie Foxx as Peter’s college pal and romantic rival, Danny McBride as a redneck war-veteran Western Union clerk, Juliette Lewis as a weed dealer, and RZA as an airport security screener.
“A Todd Phillips movie,” its credits say, as if even calling the thing a “film” would be overstating it. Reportedly Phillips has more or less admitted that “Due Date” is just something he tossed off to stay sharp while prepping the sequel to his raunchy romp smash, “The Hangover.” Speaking of tossing off: Some viewers will be glad to know that “Due Date,” like “The Hangover,” does find time for what now can be described as the Phillipsian motif of Zach Galifianakis encouraging cute little creatures to masturbate. Before, it was a baby; this time it’s the bulldog. What next??
If there’s any real ambition here, it might be to reconcile two threads of American comedy that split off, some decades ago, into the distinct vectors of John Hughes movies and post-Hughes National Lampoon movies. When not squirming with profanity and misanthropy, Peter and Ethan’s comedy of mutual frustration sits relaxedly in the tradition of Laurel and Hardy, Felix and Oscar, and especially Steve Martin and John Candy in Hughes’ “Planes, Tranes and Automobiles.” Although, come to think of it, that whole man-obstructed-trying-to-get-home-to-wife thing goes way back if you count “The Odyssey.” How’s that for serious?