By Dwight Brown NNPA Film Critic
Filmmaker Todd Phillips wrote and directed The Hangover, the highest grossing R-rated comedy of all time. It won a Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture – Comedy or Musical. “The Hangover” had it all: shocking debauchery, sardonic comic performances (Zach Galifianakis, Bradley Cooper, Justin Bartha, Ed Helms), eccentric cameos (Mike Tyson and a tiger!) and wicked direction. Zach Galifianakis is back in Phillips’ latest work, Due Date, but that’s where the similarities end.
Peter Highman’s (Robert Downey Jr.) fate is sealed the day he bumps into Ethan Tremblay (Galifianakis) at the Atlanta airport. Highman is rushing back to L.A. to be with his wife, who is about to give birth. Tremblay is traveling with his petite dog, headed to Hollywood to become a famous actor; he has his recently deceased father’s ashes in tow – in a coffee can. They both wind up in first class where the portly thespian annoys the hell out of the nerve-frayed businessman. Through a misunderstanding, both are thrown off the plane before it leaves the ground.
Desperate to get back to the City of Angels to witness the birth of his son, Highman, sans his wallet, identification and money, hitches a ride with Tremblay who has rented a car… and the road movie begins.
Phillips and three other screenwriters concocted the premise and plot. Why does it take so many writers to create such an unimaginative storyline, dull dialogue and weak plot points? The characters, though they pour out their hearts ad nasuem, are shallow. Car crashes, a beat-down by a wheelchair-bound man, and hitching a ride from a superfluous character (Jamie Foxx as Highman’s old friend) don’t divert attention from the lame writing and flat jokes that don’t serve the lead actors. A string of funny one-liners would help, but Downey Jr. and Galifianakis seemed reduced to stale improvisation. Minus Downey punching an annoying kid in the stomach, these guys can’t buy a laugh.
Downey plays the put upon Highman with his usual sarcastic flourish (a la Iron Man), but this time his banter seems strained and redundant. Galifianakis, as the thoroughly irritating Tremblay, fares a bit better, but even his caustic behavior barely deserves a chuckle. In the old days, Abbott and Costello used to pull this kind of humor off without breaking a sweat. Downey and Galifianakis lack that chemistry. Foxx is wasting his time. Juliette Lewis, as a drug dealer, steals her scene with a wacky, stoner charm that may help the legalize marijuana movement.
Phillips also wrote and directed the hysterically funny “Old School” — he has comic pedigree. He’s proved he can make an audience cackle. He knows how to be totally outrageous and twisted. Yet, his direction flails and his two lead actors’ suffer the consequences. Sticking them in a car that jumps off a highway and crash lands on its roof, on a road below, doesn’t do the trick. In reality, the guys wouldn’t survive; as physical comedy, the stunt falls flat. Tremblay’s shtick as the wannabe-actor who idolizes the TV show “Two and Half Men,” is humorous — but it still doesn’t go for the jugular.
The footage is decently shot (Lawrence Sher); the music by Christophe Beck accentuates the right moments. If the film were riding on its cinematography or music it might pass. It isn’t. It’s a comedy.
There is hope. Phillips is shooting The Hangover 2. The original cast is back, and there’s a good chance the depraved debauchery that was so infectious in the original will remerge. It hasn’t here.