The worst thing to emerge from the success of the 2009 movie The Hangover is the misconception that Todd Phillips makes good movies. Before that, the matter seemed to be fully settled, the opposite conclusion largely agreed upon across the board. The film that preceded Hangover was the widely ignored 2006 release School for Scoundrels and before that was the properly loathed (and also unwatchable) 2004 mess Starsky & Hutch, which is mostly notable for providing the material for one of the best single jokes Ricky Gervais cooked up on the show Extras. Even his biggest box office success, Old School in 2003, is nothing that needs to be studied for its comic genius.
But then The Hangover earned baffling positive reviews and became a summer sensation, completely shifting the entertainment industry’s perception about the viability of R-Rated comedies. Phillips was now a guy who was supposedly worthy of added attention, a little more trust, a richer budget and a sturdier group of actors in his cast. Theoretically, his next film after The Hangover is the true test, right? Success buys freedom in Hollywood, and the follow-up would surely demonstrate decisively the magic could work with a comic premise. His 2010 release Due Date, reuniting him with Hangover standout Zach Galifianakis and adding Robert Downey, Jr., still astride the unlikeliest career resurgence in memory, would seem to be a fair test of what he could really do, right? If so, what he can really do is exactly what he’s proved previously: make a bad movie.
I’m not exactly a fervent fan of Planes, Trains & Automobiles, the 1987 John Hughes comedy that Phillips plainly pilfers from, concocting ludicrous reasons to put a mismatched pair together on an extended road trip in the name of easy conflict and the ostensible comedy that will emerge. The Phillips approach of layering on raunchy nonsense doesn’t make it any more appealing. Downey plays a fairly stiff architect who’s trying to get home to Los Angeles from Atlanta when a mix-up on the airplane gets him stuck on the no-fly list, and the circumstances of the incident improbably leave him without money or identification. He hitches a ride with the puppyish dimwit who got him into the mess in the first place. This is the Galifianakis role, and, funny as he can be, the actor is running the risk of being permanently typecast as nothing but addled, gross man-children.
As was the case with Hangover, Phillips doesn’t shape humorous situations or work comedy out of well-drawn characters. He just puts something that’s challenging in its filthiness on screen and expects that the gasps will turns into guffaws. I guess there’s plenty of people out there who think it’s hysterical to see a dog apparently follow his owner’s lead and engage in a little casual masturbation in a parked car, but I find it painfully stupid, and, worse yet, lazy. Phillips is credited with three others on the screenplay, so he’s as culpable as anyone for the dispiriting mixture of cheap shock gags and unearned sentiment. By the halfway point, it was clear enough that Phillips and his collaborators had no ideas that could generate even the most meager enthusiasm in me. When the most interesting thing about a movie is the way Downey is aggressively underplaying his role–admittedly an incredibly rare sight–then that’s simply not a very interesting movie. Halfway was far enough for me.