Most comedy threads the needle between humor and discomfort, but the noisy and curiously bleak Due Date jabs that needle right in your eye. Repeatedly. And then tries to wish the pain away with belly laughs and warm sugary kisses.
After the smash, genre-redefining success of The Hangover, Todd Phillips has opted for something darker and stranger, though still firmly rooted in the bawdy, bromantic road trip shenanigans that made him famous. This raucous road picture shares the same elemental structure as Planes, Trains and Automobiles, pitting an uptight fussbudget against a pathetic slob, but accentuating the personality conflict with calamitous stunts that raise the chaos almost to a Blues Brothers level of mayhem.
Robert Downey Jr. plays the amusingly named Peter Highman, a hotshot architect desperate to get out of Atlanta and back to his very pregnant wife in Los Angeles. That plan encounters a major snag in the tubby form of Ethan Tremblay, played by Zach Galifianakis as pretty much the same grating, clueless, insecure yet overconfident dope he played in The Hangover. The only difference is that this guy is a tad swishier and even more obnoxious, latching on to Downey like a barnacle and refusing to let go. They bump into each other at the airport, and, after a disastrous run-in with a federal air marshal, these perfect strangers are placed on the no-fly list, and forced into sharing a rental car headed west. That's cool by Ethan, who was headed to Hollywood to make it as an actor, despite having little talent. Peter quickly points this out to him, as he tends to mention the personal failings of anyone in range. He's surely got a bad attitude, and anger management issues, which get pushed well beyond the breaking point by his chatty travel partner. Together these misfits go to some dark places; Lonely Ethan carries his dad's ashes in a coffee can, and suspicious Peter can't even trust that one of his best friends (Jamie Foxx) didn't really father his unborn child. When not trying to kill each other, these guys form an odd bond, almost inexplicably, and begin opening up to each other. Would you buddy up with a pot-smoking, feral-bearded nutjob that fell asleep behind the wheel and nearly killed you? Dinner for Schmucks offered the same sort of problem, where Steve Carell's character was so idiotic and destructive you had to fight the urge to strangle him.
No matter how many car crashes and sight-gags Phillips throws at the screen, it can't obscure that the leads, while likable actors, are both playing sort of unpleasant dudes. It doesn't help that the "hero" keeps running afoul of all the officious little jerks who wield their tiny amounts of power with maximum vindictiveness. Seeing the usually charming Downey abused by such petty despots filled me not with giggles but with a bad case of existential dread. There are big laughs to be had here, as soon as you stop cringing.