Thursday, November 4, 2010

Road trip or road kill? A bit of both

Some laughs, but on a road trip from hell.

They say if you can survive a long car trip with someone, you're probably well suited to have that person as a real friend. The new comedy Due Date asks us to take a cross-country drive with two actors who should have been great comic company: Robert Downey Jr. and Zach Galifianakis.

But after awhile, it's clear that a road trip augmented by gags, gross-outs, drugs and overproduced car carnage can wear you down. I kept wishing that Downey and Galifianakis could dig themselves out from under the movie's mountain of humor - much of it built around wildly inappropriate behavior - and find a rest stop.

Although there are chuckles along the way, this highly anticipated road-trip comedy proves a hit-and-miss affair, probably as the result of second-rate material that goes for easy laughs and exaggerated weirdness. To those who love director Todd Phillips' work -- namely The Hangover - some of the movie's odd- couple pairing may hit the spot, particular if you like masturbation jokes and other behavior that's supposed to be funny because it's so obviously beyond the pale: Downey's character punching a kid in the stomach, for example.

Say this: Phillips gets the contrivances out of the way quickly, pushing Downey's Peter Highman, an architect, into a cross-country car trip with a total stranger, Galifianakis' Ethan Tremblay. Ethan, an aspiring actor who shows no evidence of talent, is headed for Hollywood. Peter's eager to arrive in Los Angeles where his wife (Michelle Monaghan) is about to give birth to their first child.

It's supposed to be a classic pairing of opposites. Peter is quick to lose patience with Ethan, who's transporting his father's ashes in a coffee can and whose marijuana habit forces him to stop at the out-of-the-way home of a dope dealer (Juliette Lewis). Circumstances also prompt a visit with a guy who once dated Peter's wife, an underutilized Jamie Foxx

Downey, whose character takes a pretty bad beating during the course of the film, can't always save this material, nor can Galifianakis, who sports a perm and who - as he usually does - appears frighteningly sincere and totally off-the-wall at the same time. Galifianakis gives his character a strangely effeminate walk, and seldom is seen without his pet bulldog, a critter that provides the filmmakers with a reliable laugh prop. Ethan isn't just an oddball character, he seems to be in need of institutionalization.

There's only so much you can do with an odd-couple formula. Maybe that's why Phillips attempts to pump up the proceedings with car crashes and chases involving Mexican border patrolmen, portrayed in annoyingly stereotypical fashion.

And how clich├ęd is this? At one point, Galifianakis' character says, "I'm not an accountant. I'm not even Jewish."

Not exactly inspired writing.

It's a safe bet that most comedy fans will note that Due Date sometimes plays like an updated version of Planes, Trains & Automobiles, but it's a misshapen offspring that doesn't always do the lineage proud. Considering the combined talents of the movie's principal actors, Due Date should have delivered a whole lot more than it does. I got a few laughs to be sure, but I was ready to shed these two sorry travel companions long before the movie ended.

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