Monday, November 8, 2010

"Due Date" Review

I appreciate that “Due Date” dials back the faux-outrageousness that made director Todd Phillips’ shallow smash hit “The Hangover” such an aggravating, unfunny experience for me. “Due Date” deals in plot and character, words I was beginning to think had been dropped from the comedy screenwriter’s handbook. The problem is, “Due Date” isn’t riotously funny either.

Humor is always a balancing act. While “Due Date” sports fewer laughs than “The Hangover,” it boasts a higher laugh to joke ratio. Also, since its predecessor crams shtick into every vacant nook and cranny, we never end up caring about its group of sorry misfits, let alone their Vegas bachelor’s party gone awry. When a joke falls flat in “The Hangover,” there isn’t a safety net to break the fall. The film splinters on impact.

The tightrope is safer in “Due Date” because we actually care about Peter Highman (Robert Downey Jr.). An expectant father with anger management issues and a lousy row of bad luck, Peter is exactly the sort of flawed protagonist we inherently root for. His cross-country companion Ethan Tremblay (Zach Galifianakis), however, is another story. His sole purpose in the film is to instigate Peter’s short-temper, a task at which he excels. We don’t care much about him, but then we don’t need to—his personality quirks aren’t the punchline, Peter’s reaction is.

In that regard, there are some beautifully cathartic moments that distinguish “Due Date” from many of today’s ultimately polite comedies. The gravitas with which Downey Jr. delivers his tirades make them that much more effective, and his lack of conventional comic attributes is what makes “Due Date” palatable. If only his resolve had held stronger.

As Peter and Tremblay arrive at an awkward friendship, Phillips regrettably kills the only thing “Due Date” has going for it: animosity. These are characters I don’t care to see get along; when they’re enjoying each other’s company, it hard to enjoy either’s. Everything funny about the film comes from their being at odds—Peter’s unapologetic audacity is what makes the character such a great foil to the naive, annoying Tremblay. Stripped of that dynamic, the film merely sputters.

Where “Due Date” finally collapses is in its cheap third-act schmaltz. The film is all but devoid of a climax, and Peter arrives at the hospital to meet his wife to neither fanfare nor adversity. The film is almost working against itself at this point, because Tremblay never becomes a proper antagonist. Even when the nature of his greatest deceit is laid bare, the character clash between he and Peter is underwhelming in comparison to earlier bouts. That they afterwards go on to become buddies is the coup de grace.

Though “Due Date” is hardly a contender for comedy of the year, it nevertheless displays more intelligence than one would expect from the follow-up to “The Hangover.” That intelligence, however, renders its “Hangover”-esque material (masturbating dogs) embarrassingly obsolete. The characters are strong enough to overcome the script’s stinkers, at least until friendship rears its ugly head.

Still, “Due Date” is encouraging as a testament to the importance of strong character writing, if only because it edges out a pass in spite of its blemishes elsewhere. Odd as it might sound, it’s refreshing to see even a middle-of-the-road comedy that isn’t trying to squeeze in six lame jokes per page. “The Hangover” may have had more laughs, but I’ll take better characters any day.


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