It's more "Starsky and Hutch" than "The Hangover."

That may seem like I'm bagging "Due Date" right off the bat, but it's more a case of setting expectations at the right level.  There are a number of big laughs in the film, and both Robert Downey Jr. and Zach Galifianakis show up ready to play.  It's a film that has problems with connective tissue, though, and what you're left with is thin, a sort of rough draft of what might have been a much better movie.

One surprise up front that probably shouldn't be:  don't expect the warm fuzzies to be the main goal of the movie.  This is in many ways the exact model of what studios want from a comedy these days, but because of the darker notes that Todd Phillips can't help but play, the film is basically "Planes, Trains, and Sociopaths."  It's strange, because Robert Downey Jr. has the ability to make you like almost any character.  It's been his gift since the beginning of his career, and the reason he was the exact right person to cast for "Less Than Zero."  He played a moral vacuum in that film, a piece of human garbage, and yet you can't stop watching him.  Zach Galifianakis has a very different comic gift, the ability to play straight-faced eccentric with real authenticity.  It's easy to be weird.  It's hard to make weird feel real and also be funny.  The entire point of doing this sort of a road movie is to pick two personalities that are going to clash in an interesting way, and that hopefully are compelling.

You may not care about any of my complaints.  If you look at the trailer and you immediately start laughing at the idea of weird Zach making Robert Downey Jr. super-angry over and over, then this is probably the holiday film for you.  The things that bother me are the things that would make this a movie that really sticks, like some of the best precursors in the genre.  When you think of "Midnight Run" or "Planes Trains & Automobiles" or "Vacation", you think of how much you like the characters, and how much fun it is to watch frustrating things happen to them.  When I think of "Due Date," the frustration is real, not the comic tension that is intended.  There are some basic story issues that just don't work for me.  I don't understand why the circumstances here end up pushing these two people together, and why Downey's character doesn't make better choices.  Because of that, I'm not sure I buy the basic conceit of the film.  And the moment you start thinking like that, the entire enterprise is in danger of deflation.

It's not fair to blame the faults of the final film on the screenplay credited to Alan R. Cohen & Alan Freedland and Adam Sztykiel & Todd Phillips, because the way the film's edited, it feels like there are things that were shot that are just gone because they cut the film to emphasize laughs, not narrative.  At the beginning of the film, Peter Highman (Downey) is on a business trip doing something that's never really spelled out, so there's no urgency to explain why he had to travel the week his wife is supposed to give birth.  In a matter of moments, he runs into Ethan Tremblay (Galifianakis) at the airport, gets into a thing with him on the airplane, and they're both suddenly put on the government's No Fly list.  In about six minutes or so.  And then they have to have a reason to travel together, and it's handled in such a "let's get this out of the way" manner that you'll either go with it or start checking out right there.  I had a problem with how offhand and barely present Michelle Monaghan is as Peter's wife.  If we don't know what he's trying to get home for, and if we don't get at least a little sense that it's important to him, then again… how are we supposed to invest in him getting there or not?

There are some funny supporting players, as there need to be, punctuating the travel and giving Peter and Ethan more complications to overcome.  Juliette Lewis and director Todd Phillips play a pot-dealing couple in Alabama, Danny McBride shows up as a guy working at a Western Union office, Jamie Foxx is an old friend of Peter's… and that's about it.  Considering how tough things are for these two, it's mainly the two of them who keep complicating things for themselves.  And they are legitimately rough on each other, with Peter coming across as a borderline lunatic for much of the film's running time.  There are some dark laughs there, but because the film doesn't commit to being as dark as, say, the work of Jody Hill, it's like the film doesn't mean it, and it always pulls back.

Technically, the film's good-looking, and I like that Phillips shoots comedy in a full 2.35:1 ratio.  Lawrence Sher is one of those guys who has perfected that slick, pretty mainstream look that says "big-budget studio movie," and there's a particular look that studios think of as "comedy," which Sher knows exactly how to do.  "I Love You, Man," "The Promotion," "Dan In Real Life," "Legally Blonde," and "Garden State"… think about how each of those has a certain kind of big bright primary color palette and a wee bit of the soft focus so everyone looks their best.  Next year's "Paul" is his, as well, and looks very much like exactly the sort of thing he does best.  He and Phillips do strong work together, and with Sher working on "The Hangover 2" now, I'm guessing they'll keep working together.

Because Downey's character is so extreme and because he pushes things so far in the film, it would make sense if Ethan was misunderstood and genuinely likable and winning, a la "Planes, Trains & Automobiles."  But he makes some awful choices, and he's so aggressively dumb about certain things, that he's hard to root for as well.  It left me feeling stranded, and I think the biggest thing the film gets wrong is the way it imagines Ethan.  Galifianakis is able to play a wide range of comic characters, and if you watch him in "The Hangover" versus "Bored To Death," that's not remotely the same guy, especially in this second season.  Zach is capable of doing really subtle funny work without playing a freak, but it seems like that's what "Due Date" wants.  Sure enough, he plays it that way even in moments where it didn't seem like Ethan would go that far or be that oblivious.

It's a shame.  "Due Date" is one of those films that seemed like a home run on paper as soon as it was announced, but it feels like that's about the hardest work that was done on the film, that initial announcement.  Your mileage may vary, but for me, "Due Date" feels like a long trip in the wrong seat, uncomfortable while it's going on, and afterwards, all I remember is the disappointment of the destination, no matter what my reaction along the way.

"Due Date" is in theaters everywhere this Friday, November 5, 2010.

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