In Due Date, a skinny, scowly and dryly self-referential Robert Downey Jr. meets a chubby, beardy, quasi-autistic Zach Galifianakis boarding a flight from Atlanta to Los Angeles. Downey Jr. plays Peter, a Bluetoothed architect with a very pregnant wife (Michelle Monaghan) waiting at home for him; Galifianakis' Ethan is a would-be movie star headed to Hollywood, with a pocket dog under one arm and a coffee can containing his recently deceased dad's ashes under the other. One nonsensical, barely explicated altercation later, both Peter and Ethan are kicked off the plane and barred from boarding another. Ethan rents a car and offers Peter a cross-country ride, which provides a framework for a series of sketches: As they make their way across the country, this odd couple bickers, smokes lots of pot, destroys several cars, evades border police and works out daddy issues in the process.
In interviews to promote Due Date, director Todd Phillips has claimed that the film was intended as a battery-recharging quickie in between the king-making success of The Hangover and the high-pressure assignment of creating a franchise-cementing sequel. The best thing that can be said about Due Date is that it lives up to Phillips' advance billing: From a breakneck pace that makes its 95-minute running time fly by to the high-contrast patina of its high-speed Super 35 source stock to a stoner-esque disinterest in Chekhovian payoff that's such a balls-out fuck-you to conventional screenwriting that it's sort of exciting, Due Date is fast, lazy and out of control in a manner that's basically commendable.
Which is not to say it's cheap: Phillips, who also directed Starsky & Hutch, has a thing for extended, highly destructive car chases that, in their relentless momentum and defiance of real-world consequence, almost qualify as surreal. He also likes to hammer home moments of genuine emotion with sweeping crane shots and expensive source cues. Here, the production's bloat is at odds with the material's scrappy charm.
Due Date's best running gag revolves around Ethan's acting ambitions, and while Galifianakis' material (written by a team of screenwriters, including Phillips) isn't always fresh (Ethan's headshot looks a lot like that of Arrested Development's Tobias Funke), it's hard to imagine another contemporary comic getting this kind of mileage out of wearing a Lilith Fair T-shirt and gently ribbing Two and a Half Men. As in The Hangover, Galifianakis' full commitment to his character's multivalent strangeness, his ability to rocket back and forth between laughing stock, antagonist and sympathetic hero — sometimes within the space of a single line reading — makes him Due Date's MVP. And unlike Downey and supporting players Jamie Foxx and Danny McBride, you never get the sense that Galifianakis the actor is winking at you from behind the character.
Last month's soggy-sincere indie It's Kind of a Funny Story, which cast Galifianakis as a mental patient/ward mentor, was supposed to offer the comedian the chance to capital-A Act, but he's more convincing as a functional crazy person in Due Date — his performance is the only thing grounding a film that brashly flaunts character development and narrative causality. I don't know how long this can last — I don't know how many scenes Galifianakis can steal in big-budget mainstream comedies before his act, particularly the self-serious naiveté that won't quit until his hardened sidekicks and/or opponents submit to it, becomes codified, losing its veneer of spontaneity and thus its appeal. But for now, his chemistry with Phillips is the filmmaker's greatest asset.
Due Date, like The Hangover before it, barrels through increasingly fantastic set pieces on its way to a major grown-up man rite of passage, but in this case, the journey is divorced from the destination. Downey's Peter has no need for big life lessons: He's kind of an asshole, but an asshole who's fully committed to his marriage and impending fatherhood, and he's allowed to stay more or less the same asshole throughout his travails. Due Date's reluctance to impose late-inning moral change may just be a function of its lackadaisical construction, but it's refreshing nonetheless. Blissfully, each disaster is solely for the sake of slapstick.