Due Date: Downey, Galifianakis and Road Rage

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Melinda Sue Gordon / Warner Bros.

Robert Downey Jr. as Peter Highman and Zach Galifianakis as Ethan Tremblay in Warner Bros. Pictures' and Legendary Pictures' comedy Due Date.

Todd Phillips' cross-country road comedy Due Date, which leaves the nagging impression that the United States is at least 12,000 miles wide, is the true test of the Robert Downey Jr. devotee. He's one of our great male actors, not to mention the rare, pleasing celebrity who has overcome his most destructive impulses. Also, he's only getting better looking with age. But can you still love him when he's spitting in the face of a dog or sucker-punching a waifish child?

Downey plays Peter Highman, an architect from Los Angeles paired, Planes, Trains & Automobiles-style, with a needy, foolish, completely uncool aspiring actor named Ethan Tremblay (Zach Galifianakis). While Peter is slightly more socially savvy than Larry David's character on Curb Your Enthusiasm, he's cut from the same intolerant cloth. He and Ethan first bump into each other at the airport in Atlanta. Both are bound for Los Angeles, Ethan to make it in Hollywood and Peter to be at his wife Sarah's (Michelle Monaghan) side for the birth of their first child, hence the film's title. After various mishaps involving airport security, the duo ends up in a small rental car together headed across country.

Playing someone humorless is an unusual position for Downey; depriving him of the quick-witted quip out of the corner of his smirking mouth is like telling Denzel Washington to cool it already with the smooth charm. Downey's tendency has always been to try to win an audience over, whether the script requires it or not, but he doesn't do that here. His Peter is a crisply executed character, a man on a tight fuse, and I admire the portrayal, even though there's no way I'd want to drive across country with him.

That's not to say Ethan is exactly a treat either. His greatest aspiration is to be on Two and a Half Men (one of the movie's better jokes). He's vain, offensive and so ignorant that he doesn't even realize when he's saying something anti-Semitic. His habits range from disgusting (masturbating himself to sleep) to dangerous (smoking dope at the wheel). Essentially, he's Calamity Jack, and the movie is actually less Planes, Trains & Automobiles than Guns, Beatings & Car Wrecks.

Galifianakis gives Ethan various little touches (a lapdog, a perm, Capezio dance flats) that make you think we might be headed into an examination of Peter's hidden homophobic tendencies, but that never blossoms into anything. Ethan's also a connoisseur of medical marijuana (for his "glaucoma"), which supplies the motivation for a side trip in Louisiana to replenish his stash, and gives Phillips (whose first feature film was Road Trip) and his three other credited screenwriters a chance to get a cheap laugh by having a character played by Robert Downey Jr. declare that he has never done drugs a day in his life. The dude movie genre has become as tediously dependent on drug scenes as chick flicks are on shopping montages. At least in this one, we get the treat of Juliette Lewis' brief appearance as a slovenly dealer (and the mother of the kid Peter punches). She doesn't get to do much, but even 20 seconds of her bantering with Downey is better than nothing.

This is the kind of movie you should never see twice, because so much of it is based in appall-me humor. Meaning you'll laugh the first time in the reflexive way you do when you can't believe how audacious the comedy is and how uncomfortable the situations are, whereas a second viewing would afford you an opportunity to feel kind of rotten about laughing the first time. Or question how funny a masturbating dog really is. For all its supposed comedy, there's very little joy in Due Date. I say that as someone who happily rolled with the stupidity in Phillips' previous efforts, Old School and School for Scoundrels. His 2008 blockbuster The Hangover, which gave Galifianakis his breakout role, was at least twice as funny — and while it had a nasty edge too, that nastiness never felt so personal. Nor did that weekend in Vegas feel interminable as this days-long car trip does.

Maybe the difference is that The Hangover didn't have any goals beyond making us laugh. It was about male friendship too, but the friendships posed no dramatic challenges; the guys in that movie just were, oafish and entertaining. With Due Date, road trip movie precedent tells us that buttoned up Peter will come to appreciate unbuttoned Ethan. But having supplied us with plenty of evidence of the darkness within Peter and Ethan's remarkable ability to drive anyone crazy, it's hard to believe that we've truly seen the beginning of a beautiful friendship.