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Watching Zach Galifianakis’ Ethan Tremblay, an aspiring actor, act out a scene given to him by Peter Highman (Robert Downey Jr.) with amateurism and then turn it into an emotionally-charged turn in “Due Date” reminded me of the little-seen movie “Mulholland Dr.” The comparisons with that 2000 masterpiece from David Lynch and this forgettable buddy comedy should end there, but they don’t. A lot of Todd Phillips’ latest is a hallucinatory road trip filled with drugs, car wrecks, and bizarre tonal changes. Take my advice, stick with Lynch.
Phillips could’ve done anything after he sailed away with the box office last summer with “The Hangover.” Instead, he decided to recycle his use of Galifianakis as the awkward, sympathetic idiot and pair him with Robert Downey Jr. for a road movie based on “Plains, Trains and Automobiles.” It’s an appealing match-up ripe with potential, almost none of which is utilized. The two actors at the center were almost given too much freedom to be themselves, letting their personalities fill in the many blanks the script left out, both plot-wise and on the laughing front.
The plot starts off by putting these two men heading for the same place with different goals together. They’re kicked off an airplane and put on the “no-fly” list after a confrontation with each other, and Peter is left wallet-less. Ethan has him ride with him and his masturbating dog cross-country to Los Angeles, where he will become an actor on “Two-and-a-Half Men” and Peter will watch his child be born.
It sounds harmless enough, and depending on who directed it, this could’ve very much been a cross-country, family-friendly Disney outing. Under the watchful, perverted eye of Phillips though, no societal taboo is left unmilked for laughs. Though he doesn’t come right out and say it like many modern auteurs, Phillips’ films espouse a specific set of societal rules. Women always take the backseat, and are usually placed in one of two categories: the pothead/stripper (Juliette Lewis here and Heather Locklear in “The Hangover”) or the bitchy no-fun-zone mother-figure (Michelle Monaghan).
When Monaghan, who here plays Peter’s expectant wife, loses her temper, sad music plays and his troubled face is given a close-up. When it’s Downey’s turn to be an asshole, he punches a kid in the stomach for a laugh. That kid, by the way, is the child of Lewis’ pot-selling dropout, the implication being that this is what happens when kids don’t have dads and wives don’t have husbands.
This isn’t a completely wasted effort, however. Since Phillips digs deep for laughs in all of his situations and he and his two main actors are naturally funny, there are some terrific gags. The two men, while at Peter’s friend’s (Jamie Foxx) house, drink the ashes of Ethan’s father, which were placed in a coffee container to ensure they stayed sealed. Following that, when back on the road, Peter tells him “Sorry we drank your dad.”
Using the dad’s ashes as a comedic device is the most successful thing about this movie, which is kind of sad, and a little bit of a metaphor. That dad got to grow up watching comedy classics from John Hughes and many others. His kids, and us, are treated to the leftover ashes of the remakes, which are sold to us packaged as something original. We drink it, and some think it tastes good, but we’d spit it out if we knew what it really was.
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