Todd Phillips´ Due Date is so close in story and spirit to John Hughes´ Thanksgiving classic Planes, Trains & Automobiles that it might as well be considered a remake; it´s just less trains and more automobiles as two Odd Couple commuters – an obnoxious man-child and a misanthropic asshole – make their way across the country, with every joke pushed to an uncomfortable extreme and every dramatic point underscored threefold to suit 2010 audiences. The seasonal hook that magnified Planes, Trains´ success – among a thin crowd, it´s easily the most popular Thanksgiving-themed film – has been replaced by, as the title suggests, the birth of a child.
Due Date is frequently funny – though not nearly as consistently as Phillips´ last film, the megahit The Hangover, and not as good – and it features some lively and appealing work by Robert Downey Jr. and Zach Galifianakis, two actors who seem more at home as further out-there their characters get. It also features a dramatic edge that comes off more often than not; among mainstream comedies, that´s good enough.
Downey Jr. stars as Peter Highman, an architect on his way from Atlanta to L.A. to be with his wife (Michelle Monaghan, in a thankless role) for the birth of their first child. Peter is self-absorbed, unfriendly, and beyond just ‘mean´; as he punches a 10-year-old in the gut or spits in face of helpless dog – who has just been released from the hospital, neck cone and all, mind you – he´s downright unconscionable. This is Tony Stark on acid, and only Downey could pull a role like this off.
Galifianakis is Ethan Tremblay, an aspiring actor travelling to Hollywood and looking to make it big, carrying his French Bulldog in one hand and a coffee can containing his recently-deceased father´s ashes in the other. Ethan is an overgrown kid who operates at a different level than the rest of us; unlike Peter, who knows what he is and revels in it, Ethan is entirely oblivious to everything and everyone that surrounds him. In other words, it´s your average Zach Galifianakis role.
Peter and Ethan bump into each other outside the airport, and then again on the flight to L.A.; before it can take off, they´re both booted and improbably placed on a ‘no fly´ list. Peter, stuck in Atlanta with his wallet, ID, and all belongings headed to L.A., finds himself in an unpromising situation with his wife due to give birth in five days. Instead of any number of logical options, he decides to hitch a cross-country ride with Ethan, who has rented a car. First stop: an Alabama drug den run by Heidi (Juliette Lewis), where Ethan blows almost all his budget on (medicinal) marijuana.
Due Date coasts along with this setup, a few large-scale setpieces (Phillips seems to have a thing for vehicular carnage, and there´s plenty on display here) and colorful supporting roles (Lewis, Jamie Foxx, and particularly Danny McBride are fun), and lays everything else on the shoulders of Downey and Galifianakis. For the most part, they succeed: even at his cruelest Downey is engaging, though he certainly isn´t likable here and never seems to suffer enough for his sins (to be sure, he does suffer plenty).
But he´s outdone by Galifianakis, which is no small feat: so committed to the role that we don´t even sense a performance (unlike Downey, who is always nudging us in the ribs), Ethan is by turns obnoxious, antagonistic, pitiful and sympathetic, sometimes all within the same scene (see his rest stop bathroom ‘audition´). Galifianakis´ brand of humor is love-it or hate-it and he won´t win any converts here, but Due Date is the best he´s been in a feature; director Phillips deserves a lot of credit for expanding what has been previously best utilized in Funny or Die clips or Tim and Eric Awesome Show Great Job cameos into a full-fledged leading role. See also: The Hangover.
In the end, Due Date is fast and loose but rarely out-of-control, a half-satisfying comedy with a workable but are-they-serious? dramatic underpinning. It´s not nearly as successful as Planes, Trains & Automobiles, and is similar enough that it pales in its shadow. But it´s a good-enough ride.
A lot of people, I think, are going to leave Anton Corbijn´s The American unsatisfied; what´s all this symbolism and philosophy doing in my George Clooney thriller? Of course, when a movie is so blatantly about the symbolism and philosophy you have to adjust your expectations accordingly. I can really appreciate this kind of film. You may not.
Clooney is Jack, sometimes Edward, and occasionally, prophetically, Mr. Farfale (that´s ‘butterfly´ for non-Italian speakers, or non-pasta connoisseurs). He´s an assassin – or is he? You wouldn´t know it going by what the film shows us, instead relying on general inference and a couple lines of vague dialogue to clue us in. Hiding out in a small Italian village after being ambushed by a pair of Swedish killers, Jack is working on the fabled ‘one last job´, which doesn´t involve murder but instead building a gun that he´ll read about later in the newspapers.
And that´s it. Outside of a few well-placed suspense scenes and a general ominous air, Jack drinks coffee, chats with the local priest, visits a prostitute, and builds the gun. If this were Mystery Science Theater 3000, Joel and the bots would be asking the screen: “is this a documentary about how to do whatever it is he´s doing?”
Instead, the entire movie exists in-between the lines: it´s about what Jack is thinking, the meaning of sparse lines of dialogue, the motivation behind his actions: things we cannot know for sure, but can infer if we pay close enough attention. On the surface, The American appears to be a thriller, and in three or four scenes it works as one (and works quite beautifully). But everything in-between is a dead zone that requires an investment into it; it´s not a complicated thriller that requires us to pay attention, but a delicate poem that rewards us if we do.
The cool-sparse style reminds me of one of my favorite films, Jean-Pierre Melville´s Le Samourai. The difference is, you can watch that film and be plenty entertained and still not fully comprehend it. Melville takes advantage of something that Corbijn all but ignores in The American: you can have all the symbolism and vagueness that you want, but if you also have the appearance of a tangible story structure – even a B-movie one – you can engage all of your viewers while rewarding the patient ones. There´s an expectation of being entertained by a film like this, and while I enjoyed The American immensely, a part of me still longs for that expectation to be fulfilled. It can´t all be art, especially within the confines of contemporary mainstream cinema.
Clooney is that rare star who isn´t afraid to take chances; The American recalls his work in Steven Soderbergh´s Solaris remake, and the reactions have been similarly split. Here, he also features in one of the more memorably erotic, Last Tango in Paris-ish sex scenes in recent memory.
After Control, the stark, arresting portrait of Joy Division and lead singer Ian Curtis, Corbijn (formerly known for his work in music videos) has delivered another visually exciting and rewarding piece of cinema that couldn´t be more different in terms of story than his previous film. Cinematography by Martin Ruhe gorgeously captures the Italian locales; original music by Herbert Grönemeyer is used sparingly but effectively.
Note: there is a small amount of Italian spoken throughout the film, subtitled in Czech on Prague screens.
Also opening: Dreamworks Animation’s Megamind (showtimes | IMDb), featuring the voices of Will Ferrell, Brad Pitt, Tina Fey, and Jonah Hill. Screening in a Czech-dubbed version in most cinemas, but you can catch it in 3D and English (without subtitles) at Palace Cinemas Slovanský dům.