Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Squalor: Due Date

Last year, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed The Hangover.  Prior to its release I'd thought it looked decent in spite of myself.  Lets face it, in early 2009, Zach Galifianakis was essentially a no name outside of the mild internet stardom afforded to him by "Between Two Ferns," Bradley Cooper was still hampered by his "that guy from Alias" reputation, and director Todd Phillips seemed to specialize in comedies with limited appeal outside the frat house.  Phillips went from Road Trip, Old School, Starsky and Hutch and School for Scoundrels to Apatow level comedic credibility with a single film.  We can probably all agree The Hangover was a tremendous success.  It was the rare comedy that managed to be as funny to a teenage boy as it was to my Mom, and that alone is pretty major.  Now, Phillips has taken on the burden of following up The Hangover with Due Date.  On paper, I'm sure Due Date looked like the ideal project: all hail the triumphant return of Galifianakis fresh off his overnight A-listing and paired with the ever charismatic Robert Downey Jr. in the midst of a wild, massive streak of blockbuster successes.  Have no doubt, I was excited.  I believed, just last week, that there was no way Due Date could fail.  In some ways, it flies high.  In others, it's disappointing how flat it falls.  Pancake flat.  Squirrel tail roadkill flat.  Runway model flat.
Due Date's small triumphs come from the risks its director and actors are willing to take.  The plot is nothing unfamiliar; two strangers have a run in at the airport and wind up grounded and searching for an alternate means of transportation.  Yada yada, commence roadtrip...  Yada yada, car crash... Yada yada, shenanigans.  In this particular case, Peter (Downey Jr.) is anxious to get back to Los Angeles for the birth of his first child and Ethan (Galifianakis) is the absurd individual (perm wearing, pot smoking, sleep masturbating, struggling actor) who repeatedly throws Murphy's Law into full effect.  Ethan is, without a doubt, 100% annoying.  His character's ignorance is at a grating level for Peter and the audience.  The only thing that saves Ethan Tremblay from being the type of character that makes people throw their hands up and walk out (see Sandra Bullock in All About Steve) is that he's played by the remarkably capable, easily sympathetic Galifianakis.   All this aside, what makes Due Date a slightly riskier comedy is that despite the wife/kids/no wallet/stuck with Ethan angle, Peter himself is not your traditional "put-out" hero.  He has his own faults, and in many ways they should work against him to make him about as unlikable as Ethan.  Peter has a violent temper.  He's snide, glib, and judgmental.  In what may be my favorite scene of the film, the guys stop by a drug dealer's (Juliette Lewis) house so Ethan can pick up some "medical marijuana" and Peter is asked to watch the woman's kids for five minutes.  The kids are brats.  Peter, instead of allowing himself to be stepped on by the brats, winds up knocking the 8-or-so year old boy onto the floor.  As the kid gasps for air, Peter looks on, totally over the situation.  So, two self-centered men get into a car with (disregarding the actors themselves) few of the qualities that would draw us to them as characters.  What are we watching?  Raw charm.  Ultimately, that's what Due Date has to offer: proof that its leading men are, simply put, charismatic stars with fantastic heads of hair.    

The problem with Due Date is that otherwise, it's just not very interesting.  The story's more emotional twists and turns feel like imposed tidbits thrown in as an afterthought.  Where The Hangover allowed itself to indulge in raw vice and mania without stressing too much about the bride-to-be back home, Due Date is hung up on external plot lines.  What we get instead of a no-holds-barred road trip with control freak, angry man Peter and semi-gay, dimwitted Ethan is a trip through their dark sides and insecurities.  Do we need fears of foul play in Peter's marriage?  Do we need the never ending details on Ethan's deceased dad?  Not really.  Of course, these motivations are supposed to add dimension to the characters.  It's how we learn to like them, to excuse their behavior, or, you know, something like that. It's not that convincing... 

Really, what happens instead is that we see a fair amount of persuasive argument, a little too serious acting, and we lose track of the film's primary function.  What we wind up with is a series of disconnected events that just don't make sense.  It's like the script for Planes, Trains and Automobiles was accidentally shredded and a room full of writers with different ideas on the definition of 'humor' attempted to piece together what they thought its purpose was.  We shoot from silly to crude to flat out stupid to violent to saccharine, etc, etc.  It's a comedy which, while goofy, is just never that funny.  There are only a few laugh out loud moments, and a couple of those are already in the trailers.  Another one, I've already described to you.  The rest is a battle of wills that's ultimately unsatisfying, frequently forced, and far beneath the obvious skill level of both of the actors involved.  I love seeing Robert Downey Jr. in comedic roles.  His timing is spectacular.  But, I think this collaboration would have been more successful had he just stopped by for a four minute stint on "Between Two Ferns."  


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