Due Date; R, 95 minutes; Carmike Cinema 6

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The season of serious films is upon us. It’s time again for the earnest, honorable pictures that like to quiet the room, just when you’re in a good conversational groove, to say, “Ladies and gentlemen, may we have your attention, please?” Which means, “May we have your award consideration, please?” 

Zach Falifianakis (right) takes another turn as a confused bearded man who almost ruins a road trip in Due Date, from The Hangover director Todd Phillips. Robert Downey Jr. also stars.

Due Date is the joker who ignores that announcement, unsettling some and delighting others by telling those serious films what they can go do with themselves. Peter, an architect played by Robert Downey Jr., and Ethan, an aspiring sitcom star played by Zach Galifianakis, share a reluctant road trip from Atlanta to Los Angeles. Peter’s in a hurry to get home to his very pregnant wife (Michelle Monaghan). Ethan is, shall we say, less focused. All he has are his dreams, his dog, and a coffee can full of his recently deceased father’s ashes. It’s like an improv game: How long will they go, how far, how outrageously?

Answer: about an hour and a half, a few thousand miles, fairly. Due Date was scripted by director Todd Phillips and a bunch of writers with a unanimous “whatever-dude” disregard for character development and story logic. It’s a movie in which the officious jerk gets increasingly fed up with an oblivious stooge, and neither man bothers much to improve his personality, just as border police don’t bother following up on their destroyed property and stolen vehicles. It gets by just fine on its stars’ contrasting charisma, with added flecks of mirth from a long list of cameos: Jamie Foxx as Peter’s college pal and romantic rival, Danny McBride as a redneck war veteran, Juliette Lewis as a weed dealer, and RZA as an airport security screener.

“A Todd Phillips movie,” its credits say, as if even calling the thing a “film” would be overstating it. Reportedly Phillips has essentially admitted that Due Date is just something he tossed off to stay sharp while prepping the sequel to his raunchy smash, The Hangover. Some viewers will be glad to know that Due Date, like The Hangover, builds one major Phillips motif: Zach Galifianakis encouraging cute little creatures to masturbate. (This time it’s a bulldog instead of a baby.)

If there’s any real ambition here, it might be to reconcile two threads of American comedy that split off, some decades ago, into the distinct vectors of John Hughes’ teen comedies and National Lampoon’s bawdy romps. When not squirming with profanity and misanthropy, Peter and Ethan’s comedy of mutual frustration sits relaxedly in the tradition of Laurel and Hardy, Felix and Oscar, and especially Steve Martin and John Candy in Hughes’ Planes, Tranes and Automobiles. And come to think of it, the whole man-obstructed-trying-to-get-home-to-wife thing goes way back if you count The Odyssey. How’s that for serious?

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