Delightfully Odd Couple

Robert Downey Jr. is the straight man to Zack Galifianakis’ crazy in Due Date

On the rebound from the mammoth box office success of The Hangover, director Todd Phillips (Old School) has sharpened his comic sensibilities to detonate laughs where none seem possible in Due Date. With a conventional road-picture format Phillips draws mightily on the delightfully asymmetrical chemistry between Robert Downey Jr. and Zack Galifianakis.

In a role that Downey himself could have played to perfection in an earlier incarnation of his checkered cinematic past, Galifianakis plays wannabe television actor Ethan Tremblay. On his way to Hollywood to follow his dreams, Ethan is an effeminate scarf-wearing misfit who might as well have a sign around his neck announcing “trouble happening.” Taking medical marijuana on a commercial flight? Check. In tow with an annoying little dog named Sonny? Check. Deceased father’s ashes in a coffee can? Check.

Naturally, Ethan spoils straight-arrow architect Peter Highman’s (Downey) Atlanta-to-Los Angeles flight plan, where he is due to arrive in time for the birth of his wife’s baby. Oil and water never seemed so diametrically opposed. Outrageous pratfalls and situational slapstick humor take the cake between off-kilter comic dialogue that erupts like a spastic volcano of cinematic expression.

The filmmakers ingeniously tweak the same straight-man/funny-man design that gave legs to comic pairings such as Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Downey defiantly performs his share of politically incorrect acts, such as spitting in the dog Sonny’s face. The bits create a particularly irreverent variety of humor that will offend those audience members not willing to take the bait. Downey’s thinly disguised gusto makes the funny bits all the more enjoyable.

What we experience is comedy history being made. Even if Downey and Galifianakis never work together again, their collaboration here establishes a remarkable pairing of wit and dramatic restraint that plays against itself as much as it elevates the obvious tension between the mismatched characters.

One well-publicized scene has Peter sharing a personal story from his childhood that causes Ethan to burst out in a fit of inappropriate laughter. It’s one of the most uncomfortable scenes in the movie and also one of the most engaging.

However much we might want Ethan’s character to be someone else, he’s not and he isn’t ever going to be. And it’s this kind of grudging acceptance that gradually transforms Peter’s hatred for Ethan into something akin to brotherly love. It also allows Ethan to get away some of the most boneheaded deeds three caffeinated screenwriters could dream up. For example, stealing a border patrol police vehicle with an attached office trailer.

It’s refreshing to see the Judd Apatow school of physical comedy get a run for its money. Phillips (screenwriter on Borat) has outdone himself. Due Date is a laugh-out-loud movie that earns its R-rating and pays off just as heartily as The 40-Year-Old Virgin. The joy is in what happens in the actors’ faces.

Due Date (R) ★★★★☆