Straight Man/Funny Man: Downey Jr. and Galifianakis Go Rogue

City Pulse | November 1, 2010
Straight Man/Funny Man

Downey Jr. and Galifianakis Go Rogue

Due Date (619 words)

By Cole Smithey

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. 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 Jr. himself could have played to perfection in an earlier incarnation of his checkered cinematic past, Galifianakis plays wannabe television actor Ethan Tremblay. The made-up last name tells a lot. 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 Jr.) flight plans from Atlanta to Los Angeles 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 like Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Robert Downey Jr. defiantly performs his share of un-politically correct acts--i.e. he spits in said dog Sonny's face. The bits are particularly irreverent variety of humor that will fitfully offend those audience members not willing to take the bait. That Downey Jr. does so with a thinly disguised gusto you can feel in your heels, makes the funny bits all the more enjoyable. Besides, by this time Sonny has already committed his own particularly offensive don't-go-there behavior.

What we experience is comedy history being made. Even if Downey Jr. 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. We wait for Ethan's laughter to subside, perhaps into the kind of crying that such unfathomable regret seems to inure. As the seconds pass, the audience is coerced into reexamining the social context of the scene from top to bottom. 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 else, something like brotherly love. It also allows Ethan to get away with some of the most bone-headed deeds three caffeinated screenwriters could dream up. Stealing a border patrol police vehicle with an attached office trailer from Mexico might sound like fun and games, and in "Due Date" it is.

It's refreshing to see the Judd Apatow school of physical comedy get a run for its money. Todd 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 movies like "The 40-Year-Old Virgin." The joy is in what happens in the actors' faces. Perhaps for their next comedy, Downey Jr. and Galifianakis will do a buddy movie.

Rated R. 95 mins. (A-) (Four Stars)

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