Now That’s What I Call DUE DATE

Due Date, the latest from Todd Phillips, is long on flaws, but many of them we can reasonably dismiss as missteps in the (righteous) pursuit of cheap, dirty laughs. Road movies are episodic almost by definition, and road comedies in particular. These films are meant to deliver spectacle after spectacle. That’s the advantage of the form, and to criticize a road comedy for a lack of narrative coherence is to basically miss the point. Robert Downey Jr.’s Peter has the emotional range of a coffee chain menu—large-irritated or extra-large-irritated, no small option available. The Mexican police give up pursuit of a stolen vehicle literally overnight. These are altogether acceptable flaws. But Phillips strings together the scenes in Due Date, in their varying levels of coherence, with a barrage of pop songs that wears on the viewer (that wore on me, anyway) more than any implausibility or lazy bit of character writing.

As Downey Jr. and Zach Galifianakis move from city to city on their way from Atlanta to Los Angeles, selections from Ice Cube, Neil Young, Band of Horses, Wolfmother (blerg) and others accompany Due Date’s shots of sunsets and highways. Some songs establish the tone better than others, although only one—Pink Floyd’s “Hey You”—figures crucially in a scene. In any case, how well a song suits its scene becomes less relevant the longer the leads spend on their journey; the film’s songs become conspicuous, distractions, because there are just so damn many of them.

Pop music has a place in film. Just last Friday, the A.V. Club posted list of soundtracks that use familiar songs to powerful effect. But the contextualizing power of pop can be used or abused, and Phillips is one of contemporary moviemaking’s most visible abusers. In The Hangover—slightly bawdier, slightly better—familiar hits likewise crowd the mise-en-scene. As if Vegas isn’t Vegas—as if we can’t take the imaginative leap and consider what it might feel like to roll a convertible into Las Vegas—without the help of a Kanye song.

Phillips is not alone. In Tropic Thunder, Ben Stiller approached music like a kid who realizes he still has a bunch of change left over after almost blowing his allowance, including iconic songs from The Rolling Stones and Buffalo Springfield seemingly because he could. But Tropic Thunder’s soundtrack detracted from that movie too, with songs playing as if they had been taken from a Now That’s What I Call War Music compilation.

In one of Due Date’s most memorable scenes—certainly the film’s most jolting tonal shift—Galifianakis’s aspiring actor Ethan attempts to show off his range to Downey in a public bathroom. While inhabiting, badly, the role of a hardass pro football coach, Ethan becomes overwhelmed by thoughts of his recently-deceased father, and not only breaks character but breaks down completely. Notably, no pop song accompanies this moment. It works on the strength of Galifianakis’s performance and the subversion of our expectations. Which all sounds simple enough, so it’s odd that Phillips’ movies don’t include more scenes like it—in which he trusts us to know what to feel.

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