The brief furore over Todd Phillips’ Joker provides a reasonable opportunity to look back on the other work of this unheralded auteur; before winning the Golden Lion of Venice, Phillips has been a prolific purveyor of low-brow comedies like the Hangover trilogy, tv reboot Starsky and Hutch, or teen comedy Road Trip. There have been attempts to lift his game as writer and director; War Dogs wasn’t bad at all, and this vehicle for Zack Galifinakis and Robert Downey Jr rehashes Planes, Trains and Automobiles and many odd-couple comedies to mildly entertaining effect.
Peter Highman (Downey Jr) is a tightly wound exec who gets knocked out of his rut when he meets Ethan Tremblay (Galifanakis) an aspiring actor who accidentally puts the two men on a no-fly blacklist after some on-board shenanigans involving lost luggage. Despite having little in common, the two men decide to drive from Atlanta to LA, with Tremblay’s dog in tow, and encountering Juliette Lewis, Jamie Foxx, Danny McBride and a few other notables along the way.
Due Date’s odd-couple comedy is pretty tired, and the tropes, which include various indignities for the ashes of Tremblay’s father, have been done to death. And yet Galifinakis does a great job of making Ethan a three-dimensional threat to his new friend, and even when the action gets quite silly during an extended Mexican border car-chase, the relationship stays grounded. Downey Jr is, despite his lengthy exposure as an A list star, still somewhat unfamiliar in such a low-key context, and he tests the unlikable edges of a self-absorbed character.
Critics may carp that Phillips is not a major director with something important to say, but there’s merit in making comedies, as there can be profundity in the tears of the clown. Joker aside, Phillips has been involved with a lot of big films; for those who didn’t take him seriously, who’s laughing now?