Friday, November 5, 2010


Two opening today:

Due Date—An uptight guy is forced to travel across America with an obnoxious guy. That’s the simple, & by no means original, premise of the new road comedy Due Date, a 21st-Century spin on the 1987 John Hughes comedy Planes, Trains and Automobiles—it’s like Planes, Trains and Automobiles, jacked up on crack.

Directed by Todd Phillips of The Hangover, Due Date stars Robert Downey, Jr. as uptight Peter Highman & Zach Galifianakis as obnoxious Ethan Tremblay. Peter is a successful L.A. architect who’s in Atlanta on business, but itching to get home to his wife (Michelle Monaghan) in time for the birth, by c-section, of their first child. A run-in with the intolerable Ethan leads Peter into a wrangle with airport security, & both men get bumped from their flight & land on a no-fly list. Peter also ends up missing his wallet, so when Ethan offers him a ride to “Hollywood”—he’s headed there to become an actor—Peter has no choice but to climb in.

What follows, of course, is a series of wacky episodes. But unlike Planes, Trains and Automobiles, in which Steve Martin was slightly stiff & fussy and John Candy was a bumbling but likable goof, Peter is an angry, anxious neurotic & Ethan is simply devoid of a single social skill, so pathologically inappropriate that he seems like he belongs in some sort of institution.

Thus the fine messes in which these two find themselves are correspondingly more extreme & ugly, in the manner of The Hangover. Ethan’s imbecility causes car crashes & wrong turns & accidental bullet wounds & even an arrest by the Mexican police. It also leads the short-fused Peter to punch a little boy in the stomach, to insult a wheelchair-bound war vet & to spit in the face of a dog—Ethan’s marvelous French bulldog, who has a deadpan worthy of Buster Keaton.

Incredibly, director Phillips & screenwriters Alan R. Cohen, Alan Freedland & Adam Sztykiel still want Due Date to espouse the road movie’s usual, sentimental theme: that traveling together is appalling, but that it’s also a bonding experience. Even more incredibly, thanks to the acting of Downey & Galifianakis, we actually do buy into the absurdly improbable bonding between the two men.

Due Date is a much more uneven piece of work than The Hangover, but it’s also much more interesting, because while the gags are mostly crass & mean-spirited slapstick, the two leads keep taking the movie into complex, troubling psychological depths. Some capable supporting actors, like Juliette Lewis, Jamie Foxx & Danny McBride, are given a scene or so each, to break up the sense that we’re seeing a two-character play.

But that’s essentially what the movie is. It turns out that Ethan has recently lost his father, whose ashes he’s carrying—his westward trek is a response to his grief. A couple of times in the course in the film, Peter is excoriating Ethan when suddenly Galifianakis lets you see Ethan’s very real & not at all comic bereavement spill out, in response to which Downey lets you see Peter’s fury & superciliousness drain away, replaced by empathy.

So the suspense in Due Date had, for me, nothing at all to do with whether Peter would make it home for his child’s birth. Rather, I was on the edge of my seat worrying that Phillips would punish me, with the heavy-handed vulgarity of his comic touch, for caring about the connection that these two remarkable actors had forged in the middle of all this chaotic silliness. Whether the crassness outweighs the humanity in the long run is a matter of individual taste, of course, but while I didn’t always like Due Date, I wouldn’t have wanted to miss these performances.

Fair Game—The leak of the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame by members of the Bush Administration was not the worst of the outrages that came out of those eight years, but it may be one of the most characteristic. It was a reaction to the refusal of Plame’s husband, former U.S. Ambassador to Gabon Joseph Wilson, to help the Administration create the backstory for the fantasy role-playing game it was planning—using actual flesh-&-blood humans as game-pieces—in Iraq.

A crude, spiteful piece of bullying, it seemed intended not only to punish Wilson & Plame but to discourage future dissenters in the Intelligence community. As pranks go, it might even have had high-school cheerleaders saying, “OMG, that’s so mean, & even, like unethnical or something.

The new movie based on the case, Fair Game, stars Naomi Watts as Valerie Plame & Sean Penn as Joe Wilson. The director, Doug Liman of The Bourne Identity, claims to have stuck closely to the record, telling the Philadelphia Daily NewsThere's no conjecture in this movie. The scenes that we portray in the White House are the scenes that somebody in that scene testified to."

If so, then the film is highly (& infuriatingly) informative for those of us whose understanding of the affair is vague beyond its broad outlines. In particular, it challenges the notion, parroted endlessly by media conservatives, that Plame was a minor figure at the CIA & that her “outing” couldn’t have had much consequence to US Intelligence, & it offers a grimly convincing portrait of a toxic atmosphere of intimidation at the CIA during those years.

Politics aside, Fair Game is a speedy & absorbing Washington drama. Liman focuses on lucidity & pace, Penn serves up his customary intensity, & Watts is touchingly restrained. The guys who play Karl Rove (Adam LaFevre) & “Scooter” Libby (David Andrews) are properly loathsome. The movie isn’t hysterical; it doesn’t scream—except once, when Wilson screams at his wife to demonstrate the Neocon approach to dissent.

The trouble is, it’s not a film that can be viewed politics aside. Conservative blood will boil because it’s unflattering to the Administration, & liberal blood will boil because, among other reasons, the perpetrators of this sliminess were allowed to ooze away—& some of them have oozed right back into American politics.

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