*Due Date (R)
Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Hollywood Interquest, Tinseltown
If ever there were a formula that has proven its durability, it's the odd-couple road comedy. From It Happened One Night to Midnight Run, there's something undeniably effective about throwing a pair of mismatched souls together on a cross-country journey of simmering loathing evolving into affection. And when those mismatched souls are Robert Downey Jr. and Zach Galifianakis — even when the structure supporting them is sometimes shaky, it's still hard to resist.
First, we've got to manufacture a scenario by which our protagonists are stuck with one another, and director/co-writer Todd Phillips (The Hangover) comes up with a doozy. Architect Peter Highman (Downey) is returning to Los Angeles from a business trip; on the plane, he encounters Ethan Tremblay (Galifianakis), a weird would-be actor. One awkward impromptu conversation about terrorism later, Peter has been removed from the plane sans wallet and put on a no-fly list. His only way back home in time for the scheduled C-section delivery of his first child is bumming a ride with someone else in a similar no-fly predicament: Ethan.
As is fairly typical of these scenarios, the tension in the pairing is created by teaming up an uptight Type-A (Peter) with a more unpredictable free spirit (Ethan) — and there's an almost instant chemistry in the way Peter takes a disliking to the spaced-out Ethan. It's a different dynamic than, for example, Steve Martin's workaholic businessman and John Candy's eager-to-please traveling salesman in Planes, Trains and Automobiles, but you can see Phillips working from a similar grab-bag of comedic situations, including an automotive disaster that takes place while the responsible guy is dozing and plenty of non-stop chatter from a guy who seems to be obliviousness personified.
Of course, Phillips isn't nearly as sentimental as John Hughes, which makes Due Date a strange concoction. Despite Peter's omnipresent Bluetooth earpiece in early scenes, Downey isn't playing the traditional Guy Who Needs to Learn What Really Matters; he's more afflicted with profound anger-management issues. And Phillips doesn't turn Due Date into a neat-and-tidy learning experience for Peter, which winds up being both bracing and vaguely unsatisfying.
Of course, that doesn't matter nearly as much when you're spending 90 minutes in consistent bursts of laughter. Galifianakis gets the most outrageous and absurd moments — whether it's casually masturbating himself to sleep in the passenger seat next to Peter or doing the world's worst "screen test" of a football coach giving his team a halftime pep talk — and he's terrific in his naïve obliviousness to the fact that other people operate under a different set of rules. But Downey also nails his best scenes, including Peter's unconventional disciplining of an annoying child, and every time he needs to unload blistering threats on his irritating companion.
It's disappointing that Due Date can't build to a more effective climax, either from a comedic or an emotional standpoint; it feels more like it's running out of steam than coming to a conclusion. But what happens on the way to that ending shows that odd couplings are still comedy gold. Two talents like Galifianakis and Downey probably would have had to try harder to make a time-tested concept like Due Date fail than they had to work to make it succeed.