Making a universally successful studio comedy is hard. Look at the success/fail ratio over the last five years, and that should tell you how difficult it is. You can count the number of straight comedies that have landed with both audiences and critics (and other discerning viewers) alike on one six-fingered hand: The Hangover, Tropic Thunder, Knocked Up, Superbad, Borat and The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Open it up to the last decade and you’re only adding a couple: Old School and Anchorman. Wedding Crashers probably exist on the cusp, but even then, comedy is so subjective, that the so-called “great” studio comedies of the 21st Century have plenty of detractors.
It’s easier with romantic comedies, because at least you have the love story to fall back on. Action-comedies rely as much on the action as humor; genre films can hide behind costumes and special effects; while a good thriller can exist in the narrative turns. But comedy: There’s no safety net. You have to rely on the jokes, the chemistry between the actors, and the humor you can extract out of contrived situations. Too aggressive, and you turn off critics. Too subtle, and you won’t win the mainstream audiences. A great studio comedy mixes sophistication and low humor, and relies on the actors and their chemistry, and little else. It’s a difficult combination, and while you can draw a through line stringing together all the participants in the above named-checked movies, they’ve all failed as much, or more, as they have succeeded. There may be a narrative formula to them all, but there’s no formula for humor. You just kind of unleash it and pray for the best.
Todd Phillips is three for ten so far (Road Trip, Old School, and The Hangover), and that represents one of the best percentages around for a comedy director. Due Date, however, is something of a draw. It’s not the complete failure that School of Scoundrels was, but neither is it a hysterical comedy. It’s basic cable fare elevated slightly by the presence of Robert Downey, Jr. and Zach Galifianakis. although even those two come up lacking. The Galifianakis shtick is much better in small doses, and Robert Downey, Jr. oversells his straight man character — he’s not a regular white-collar guy frustrated with a buffoon, as his Planes, Trains, and Automobiles predecessor was; he’s a guy with some serious anger issues that are heightened by the buffoon (we’ll disregard any notion that this is not technically a P, T, and A remake — it may as well be). Meanwhile, Galifianakis is a terrible stand-in for John Candy — he tries to deliver some heart in the role, but by that point, his character is too far from the center to sell it. He can’t get back to believable blabbermouth. He’s an eccentric kook, and even at his best moments, he can’t escape his eccentricities. The result is a comedic mess, but it’s an amiable one at times.
Downey plays Peter Highman (and fortunately, Phillips makes only one trip to the Highman well). He’s on a flight from Atlanta to Los Angeles to get home in time for his wife’s scheduled C-section when an altercation with Ethan (Galifianakis) gets him booted from the plane. Peter and Ethan are both put on a no-fly list, while Peter’s wallet and luggage are left on the plane headed to Los Angeles. With no credit cards or identification, Peter begrudgingly accepts Ethan’s offer to drive cross-country in a rental, and the road-trip hijinx begin.
It’s tough going for most of the first half of the film: Peter is nearly as unlikable as Ethan is obnoxious, and the comedy feels as forced as it does predictable. There’s a side trip to a pot dealer (Juliette Lewis) that drags on for way too long with very little payoff, and every time Ethan does something mildly relateable (revealing his vulnerability surrounding the passing of his father, for instance) he quickly cock-blocks his own humanity (and I mean that literally, in this case).
Due Date begins to pick up some steam around the middle half of the movie, and even begins to congeal near the end, despite the ridiculous, over-the-top contrivances. But even then, it’s not a particularly funny movie, but it is, at times, a likable one. Save for a brief scene involving a masturbating dog, Phillips never stoops low enough to repel his audience, but he never reaches for great heights, either. Downey is a funny and charming actor, but that’s usually a by-product of his main character. Asked here to rely on it as the basis, he can’t quite pull it off. Steve Martin could lose his shit in one scene, and pull you back in the next with the glint in his eye. With no love interest in sight, Downey never has the opportunity to display any warmth; he’s just a dick with nice features. Meanwhile, Galifiankis is the perfect trailer actor — he has enough moments to fill a three-minute spot — but after spending two hours with him, I wanted to kill his as much as Peter did. It’s a ledge that he can’t pull away from, and by the three-quarters mark, I wanted to push him off.
Due Date is mediocre, but it’s not aggressively so. It skates by, eliciting the occasional mild chuckle, and then it disappears, which — somewhat unfortunately — is probably going to happen with Galifianakis’ career in the not too distant future unless he can get to a point where he can mix his occasionally inspired off-beat humor with a dose of pathos. There’s no heart in Due Date, and not nearly enough humor to make up for it.