Early in Due Date the odd-couple main characters, Peter and Ethan, visit a pot dealer. As Ethan (Zach Galifianakis) checks out the bud, his reluctant companion, Peter (Robert Downey Jr), waits in the living room with the dealer’s two children. Peter has been kicked off a plane and forced into a car with Ethan, and he isn’t happy. He swats away the children’s questions and mocks the girl, and her brother, who looks about 9, bounces a toy off Peter’s head in seeming retaliation. One thing leads to another, and Peter punches the boy in the stomach so hard that the child doubles over, which certainly gives the expression “belly laugh” new meaning.
Of course the boy (Jakob Ulrich) is acting, and it’s all meant to be in good, nasty fun. The director Todd Phillips, who scored big last year with The Hangover, isn’t saying in Due Date that it’s OK for an adult to strike a child. Phillips likes to push studio comedies to the edge of mainstream acceptability, retrofitting old ideas (here, Planes, Trains and Automobiles) with new-school aggression and obscuring his social conservatism under the fig leaf of calculating comedy. But he’s too canny to make a movie in which an adult hurts any ol’ child. Rather, in Due Date, he tells us it is perfectly acceptable to laugh as a (much admired) movie star pretends to whale on a pesky child who ostensibly had it coming.
The (faked) child abuse theme is something of a continuation of the baby-in-jeopardy stunt that Phillips pulled off, if barely, in The Hangover, a funnier, more intricately plotted and ambitious movie. In that comedy three amigos (including one played by Galifianakis) wake up in a wrecked Vegas suite after a collective blackout during a bachelor party and find themselves the surprised custodians of a baby. Strapped to Galifianakis’ chest like a ticking bomb, the baby is the story’s savviest touch. It’s an easy prop, good for audience sighs and gasps, but it also works like an amulet because its very presence protects the men, signifying that all vulgar and violent evidence to the contrary, they are father material.
Robert Downey Jr (Peter Highman), Zach Galifianakis (Ethan Tremblay), Michelle Monaghan (Sarah Highman), Jamie Foxx (Darryl), Juliette Lewis (Heidi), Jakob Ulrich (Patrick), Danny McBride (Lonnie)
The sucker-punched boy in Due Date, by contrast, is the son of a hippie-ish space case (Juliette Lewis), whose profession, low-rent digs and seemingly altered state both set the scene and effectively justify Peter’s brutality. If the dealer had taken care of her child, if she didn’t sell drugs, cleaned her house and controlled her children, her son wouldn’t have been harmed. Maternal neglect sets up the joke, and a wallop from a daddy-disciplinarian, who’s every bit as ill behaved and finally uncontrolled as the child he hurts, brings the funny home. It’s an unfair fight, but that’s also part of the joke. As is the self-interest — a signature element in Phillips’ derivative, generic work — that drives Peter’s fist into that tiny belly.
In the logic of Phillips’ universe, punching a child is one more ha-ha, outrageous, liberating act that men (at least on screen) experience in the wilds before returning to the little ladies tapping their feet back home. In Due Date the missus (Michelle Monaghan, purely decorative), who’s married to Peter and pregnant (I didn’t notice if she was barefoot), is understandably eager for him to return for the Caesarean delivery of their first child. Like The Hangover, Due Date creates two oppositional spaces for the sexes — the giant playground in which men run riotously amok, and the domestic sphere of waiting women — you know, kind of like The Odyssey, but with masturbation jokes and vomit.