However valuable boys-bonding movies may be, it remains difficult to comprehend the sheer awfulness of girls’ roles in them. While Lesley Mann has famously maintained a sort of unlikely integrity in her several essays into the genre under the auspices of her husband Judd Apatow, it’s more often the case that girls are left to kvetch, misunderstand, worry, not get, and be/fall in love with imbeciles. That these man-children might also have redeeming qualities—they’re vaguely bright, occasionally charismatic or vulnerable, or they’re Michael Cera—doesn’t actually make any of them less imbecilic. It only makes them tolerable, which means Elizabeth Banks or Katherine Heigl or Mila Kunis agrees to marry them. And the rest of us are left wondering what we missed.
The impossible situation of Sarah (Michelle Monaghan) is indicated by the title of Due Date. From the start you know she’s scheduled to have a baby, by Cesarean, because her husband Peter (Robert Downey Jr.) describes “the strangest dream” he’s just had, while speaking with her by phone from his Atlanta hotel room bed. In this dream (which you might call oddly sympathetic or, less generously, extremely control-freaky anxious), he discovers her in a hospital giving birth, at which point a bear intervenes and chews the umbilical cord. Peter continues his conversation with Sarah as he makes his way to the airport, whereupon she wishes him a safe flight to LA and he runs smack into his buddy to be, Ethan Tremblay (Zach Galifianakis)—in slow motion, no less.
Of course, the shrewdly edgy Peter and earnestly naïve Ethan are horribly mismatched, a point underscored when they end up near one another on the plane, and as much as Peter tries to shush his new acquaintance, the words “terrorist” and “bomb” are uttered loudly enough that a federal air marshal first shoots Peter (with a rubber bullet), then hauls them both from the plane and into interview rooms. This noisy plot machinery gets them where the movie needs them, on a no-fly list and in a rental car, traveling west.
“Life is weird, isn’t it?” chirps Ethan as they head out. Peter predictably rolls his eyes and does his best not to converse with his new companion, chatty Ethan just wants to know everything about him, including his favorite color and how he met his wife (oh yes, her). Ethan has lots of info to share, from favorite TV show (Two and a Half Men) to his hopes for an acting career in LA. As Ethan’s headshots grant Peter and you, looking over his shoulder, more chances to roll eyes, you realize that you’re invited here to align yourself with a guy who’s not a little annoying. Yes, you know that he’ll be learning life lessons in the course of his adventures with Ethan, but his careless cruelty is getting a little creepy too.
It gets creepier. The ride in Due Date is not only the usual raucous escapade, with car crashes and run-ins with authorities (in this case, Mexican border guards, when Ethan takes a wrong turn), but also takes a turn toward what might be called Peter’s dark side. Once again, such a turn isn’t original for the genre (see: Dinner For Schmucks), but Downey and Galifianakis, both exceptional performers, make the cliché especially brutal. This is party because of the discomfort brought on by the plainly stupid physical antics (throwing punches and slamming heads into cars and getting high jokes), but also by Peter’s fierce articulations: the guy can talk trash.
Like other movies of this sort, this one at first limits your perspective (so you’re laughing at the schmucks) and then readjusts it (so you feel at least a little badly for laughing). Still and again, that emotional and moral journey is less instructive than familiar and unserious. It’s safe to say another bonding boys movie will take you down the same road, and you’ll still be laughing at and also celebrating the imbecile, whether for his sense of freedom, openness, or sheer energy. The lesson is apparently endlessly learnable.
Here the formula is tinged with rudimentary ambiguity and even some complexity, as Ethan grapples with a recently dead father (whose ashes he carries in a coffee can) and Peter faces becoming one. As these circumstances suggest an eventual coming to terms—and even mutual appreciation—they also set up for some broadly conceived hijinks (yes, the ashes occasion an outrageous sort of joke, as in Meet the Parents).
The emotional version of these hijjinks include Peter taking pity on Ethan for his loss (and his sometimes blubbery expressions of it) and also Ethan’s surprisingly diabolical revenge against Peter’s jabs. That’s not to say Ethan knows what he’s doing when he suggests Sarah might have cheated on Peter with Peter’s best friend Darryl (Jamie Foxx, Downey’s co-star in another sort of buddy movie, The Soloist). It is to say the result is as perverse and uncomfortable as anything else in the film, when, after long hours of dismissing and abusing Ethan, Peter takes up his suggestion about Sarah pretty much immediately, going so far as to imagine the baby is black.
Whether this is a brilliant evocation of the white guy’s ultimate nightmare or an opportunistic joke, it’s premised on the girl as property-and-plot-point, again. Surely, by now, no one is expecting Sarah to be developed, have a life, or even much of an opinion on anything. She’s mostly a very pregnant body on the other end of Peter’s phone calls, patient and sweet and hopeful he’ll be home in time for the birth. Unlike you, she has no sense of the boys’ evolving conflict and friendship, and so she can’t possibly know what to make of the burst of anxious and bloodied bodies into her delivery room. But that’s not her job here, to know what to do. She’s only got to make room for the boys bonding.