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Thursday, 25 November 2010

Mood Swings and Roundabouts: Due Date

When The Hangover hit big, it was a bit of a mystery to a lot of comedy fans. Sure, it was mildly funny, but weren’t we in the middle of a golden age of big screen major funny coming out of the US? Not if you liked your comedy simple and straightforward we weren’t, and so while once sure-fire hitmakers like Judd Apatow (with Funny People) and Will Ferrell (Semi-Pro) struggled at the box office with something a little different from the norm, The Hangover went big because it did exactly what it said on the box. Forget layering in serious drama or pushing stereotypical characters to the limits – this was a film where a bunch of loveable douchebags had wacky adventures, often involving naked Asian men or injuring a baby.

So approached from that angle, it’s more than a little surprising to discover that Due Date is – you guessed it – a film that layers in serious drama and pushes stereotypical characters to their limits. Not that it looks that way at first: Peter (Robert Downey Jr) is an uptight middle-class professional trying to fly home to L.A. in time for his wife to give birth to their first child. Ethan Tremblay (Zach Galifianakis) is a would-be actor and serious tool who screws up Peter’s plans by getting them both thrown off the plane. Two words: road trip! Oh wait, didn’t director Todd Phillips direct Road Trip back in 2000?

That’s an important element in Due Date’s construction that’s been glossed over with all the “by the director of The Hangover” publicity here: Phillips has been making comedy for well over a decade now, which in Hollywood terms makes him an old hand. Once you’ve made films like Old School and Starsky & Hutch, it’s hardly surprising if you start to seem a little jaded when it comes to getting laughs.

While Due Date’s basic plot promises the trad comedy riffs that made The Hangover so popular – and plot-wise it does tick all the road trip boxes, with various one-off wacky encounters with big name cameos (Juliette Lewis, Jamie Foxx, Danny McBride) and the usual car-crashes and quick getaways (oddly, no encounters with hot chicks tho; this is strictly a bromance) - where it diverges from the well-beaten track is in the characters of Pete and Ethan.

On the surface the double-act of a straight-laced uptight type and a freewheeling arty guy is about as old as they get. But instead of keeping them soft around the edges, Phillips pushes them about as far as they’ll go. Ethan is an annoying, pretentious moron, so we side with Peter – after all, he just wants to get home to his wife, while Ethan wants to go to Hollywood and become an actor, complete with wanky scarf, little dog and obsession with Two & a Half Men. Then Peter turns out to be the kind of guy who’ll gut-punch a little kid and spit on a dog, and we’re off into uncharted territory.

But that’s not exactly true, is it? There’s a long tradition of comedians deciding that this whole “comedy” thing is getting a bit boring. Peter Cook and Dudley Moore doing “Derek & Clive” is a prime example, where they pushed their usual double-act into a dark and obscenity-packed world simply because they (well, mostly Cook) were tired of just going for easy laughs. It’s a different thing to the trend for “dark” comedy in the early part of this century too: that was / is often about trying to get laughs from taboo subjects or being weird for weirdness’ sake. This sticks close to the road trip formula, generally plays it safe (drinking a dead man's ashes by mistake is about as taboo-busting as it gets) and is overall a lot less weird than a lot of mainstream US comedies – Step Brothers or Hot Rod are both a lot stranger (and funnier) than this.

Due Date is simply a film that often feels like it doesn’t care if you’re going to laugh at its characters or not. Yes, there are plenty of jokes and wacky set-ups, and excellent performances from Downey and Galifianakis; there are also a lot of mean, unpleasant or just plain dull moments, usually swiftly followed by an attempt to pluck at the heart strings (Ethan’s dad just died; Peter really wants to be there for the birth of his first child) and keep the audience on side.

It’s usually hard not to applaud someone trying to push a boundary or two with their film. In Due Date’s case though, for every step forward there’s a quick shuffle back followed by someone’s arse getting kicked by a war vet in a wheelchair. If there’s a reason why this patchy and uneven film really never comes together, it’s there: rather than having the courage to make its unpleasant characters seriously and consistently ugly, it’s constantly having them act like jerks then pulling back, right up until an ending that tries to pull off the “aww, now they’re best buddies” vibe but can’t make it stick and just gives up. We’re supposed to feel that they’ve mellowed towards each other bromance style for that warm, fuzzy feeling as we leave the cinema, but the tone of the film’s been so uneven for so long that the feeling we’re left with is that five minutes after the end credits one of them would be shitting in the others hat.

Anthony Morris

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