Humiliation-based comedy has taken a curious trajectory over the past decade or so. The Farrelly Brothers' earlier films like 'Dumb & Dumber' and 'Kingpin' were goofy but earnest, yet it was the gauntlet of gags known as 'There's Something About Mary' that exploded at the box office and (at the risk of generalizing) re-ignited studio interest in the R-rated comedy.
From there, Ben Stiller found himself embarrassed once more in 'Meet the Parents', and again in 'Along Came Polly', and yet again in 'Meet the Fockers' before re-uniting with the Farrellys on their underwhelming remake of 'The Heartbreak Kid'. Stiller wasn't just the funny man, but rather the punching bag, and after that, it seemed that endearing characters enduring great awkwardness became less of a priority as an elaborate sense of cruelty took the forefront. (One could argue that the 'Jackass' films have demonstrated this mentality in its purest form.)
Cut to last summer, when Todd Phillips' 'The Hangover' broke out and took the title of R-rated comedy box office champ away from 'Mary'. A sporadically hilarious movie that ran out of steam right around when Ken Jeong showed up to spout things like "Funny fat guy fall on face!", its blackout narrative at least brought a necessary spark of creativity to the table.
Now, in the time between 'The Hangover' and Phillips' follow-up -- 'Due Date' -- "Funny fat guy fall on face!" has become the rule of thumb and the systematic humiliation of protagonist(s) at any cost is the name of the game. 'Paul Blart: Mall Cop'? Check. 'Grown Ups'? Check. 'Wild Hogs'? Check. 'Old Dogs'? Check. The list goes on. To be fair, 'Due Date' is easily funnier than any of those titles, if not 'The Hangover' itself, but it shares with them all a mean-spirited mindset that nearly negates the laughs.
Peter (Robert Downey Jr.) is in Atlanta, but needs to be in Los Angeles. His wife ('Kiss Kiss Bang Bang' co-star Michelle Monaghan) is due to have their child there by the end of the week, and apparently, there was some emergency architect gig that's kept him away from home sweet home. A chance run-in at the airport with cheery would-be actor Ethan (Zach Galifianakis) sees them both kicked off their flight and promptly added to the No-Fly List, a scenario which forces the ill-tempered Peter to join the barely-there Ethan and his French bulldog for an impromptu road trip.
There are some familiar faces along the way -- Juliette Lewis as a drug dealer, Danny McBride as a war vet, Jamie Foxx as a good friend of Peter's -- and many, many obstacles for our odd couple to contend with. How will they pay for gas, food, lodging? How will they replace a soon-to-be-totaled car? Most importantly: how will they possibly tolerate one another? That's really to say, how will Peter survive Ethan? The former already has a short fuse, but when stuck next to the latter, anyone would resemble a complete and utter misanthrope. These two go together like Splenda goes with scotch.
You have every right to be reminded of John Hughes' 1987 classics, 'Planes, Trains and Automobiles', with the key difference being that John Candy's character in that film wasn't entirely insufferable and, for all intents and purposes, functionally retarded. Like Steve Carell's destructive eccentric in this summer's 'Dinner for Schmucks', Ethan goes beyond all reasonable logic in order to best serve the antics cooked up by Phillips and his three credited co-writers. It's irritating, the extent to which he serves as a catalyst first and a character second, and all would be forgiven if the film were far funnier for it. Falling asleep at the wheel and ramping off of an overpass? Getting baked and accidentally winding up at the U.S./Mexico border?
This is the type of movie where a grown man doesn't get smacked down by a car door when he runs up against it, but instead takes it clean off its hinges. This is a movie where a character's ashes are transported in a coffee can for the exclusive purpose of ensuring that someone, at some point, will make and serve coffee out of them. This is the movie where a dog winds up masturbating alongside its owner. (You may think that's especially hilarious, a la the baby-masturbation moment in 'The Hangover', and I would not be inclined to agree.)
Downey Jr. makes for a fine powder keg on legs, and Galifianakis lends some slight dramatic heft during the film's otherwise leaden sentimental moments that nicely differentiates his work here from his similarly spastic 'Hangover' performance. Phillips' shotgun spray approach to comedy does work on occasion, with Ethan's more absurd non sequiturs earning a laugh and Peter's punchier moments earning a rightful gasp. 'Due Date' is by no means a chore to watch; it just too often falls back on broad crutches instead of making the most of the acidic and deadpan talents at its disposal.
On second thought, this isn't 'Planes, Trains and Automobiles Redux' so much as it is that one scene where Steve Martin lets loose at an airport ticket counter with an epic string of profanity, only to be treated in kind. When characters here aren't mean, they're fed up, and after a while, the feeling is mutual.