'Due Date' runs out of gas

Here's the inherent contradiction with films such as "Due Date" — the ideal audience is 15-year-old boys, yet they can't get in because the movie is rated a solid R.

And here's the middle-school recipe: slapstick; countless outrageous, ridiculously improbable situations; references (graphic) to masturbation; lots of illegal drugs; and the destruction of private and public property. Regarding "Due Date," it's the Mexican Border Patrol (really) that takes a serious hit. Following the formula, women are tangential. Peter's wife, Sarah (Michele Monaghan), has only a few brief scenes where she says, with concern, "Peter, where are you?"

And not to forget the two amigos: Ethan Tremblay (Zach Galifianakis), a boy-man who is so lame and self-centered that it's a wonder he has survived as long as he has. Feeling a bit vulnerable (his dad just died) and on his way to Los Angeles where he expects to find an acting gig, Ethan, through a series of never-happen-in-real-life events, hooks up with Peter Highman (Robert Downey) at the airport. They end up driving together to California in a small rental car. Peter, we soon learn, has to get back to L.A. plenty pronto. His wife is due to deliver momentarily (hence the title). For Peter, time is of the essence.

OK, so, here you have "Planes, Trains, and Automobiles" for middle-schoolers. It's absent Steve Martin and the much-missed John Candy (brilliant in "Uncle Buck").

Of course, Downey Jr. is a superb actor; however, in this role, as a tightly wound architect, he's essentially a foil for Ethan's klutzy, over-the-top stupidity. He never gets to be funny, and Downey is gifted when it comes to comedy.

Comedic road trip movies can be wonderful. But the writing must be imaginative and crisp and the situations unexpected and genuinely funny. Though there are a few laughs in "Due Date," there aren't many. OK, chuckles. Here and there. But more silly and dumb than funny.

Director Todd Phillips also directed last year's successful and very funny "Hangover." As it turned out, it was Galifianakis' breakout role, portraying an arrested-development character similar to Ethan Tremblay. How long he can ride this one trick pony will be interesting.


"Conviction," a good movie, would have been a better had it not been based on a true story. Fiction usually is far more interesting than reality. Screenwriter Pamela Gray, talented and experienced, was clearly too constrained by the facts to explore a facet of the film that is touched on but never fully explored.

At the center of "Conviction" is Betty Anne Waters (Hillary Swank), sister to Kenny Waters (Sam Rockwell). She's a small-town girl, high school dropout and newly engaged. Her brother is arrested and charged with killing a neighbor woman, stabbing her multiple times. The rooms in her bungalow are a covered with blood. Two years after the murder, Kenny is convicted and sent to prison for life without parole. The year is 1983.

Betty Anne, sharing a bond with her brother that stretches back to their tumultuous childhood (revealed in several backstory scenes), has the unwavering belief that Kenny is innocent. She fashions a plan so remarkable, so improbable that it is simultaneously heroic and extreme. Betty goes back to school with a vengeance, earns her GED, a college degree, followed by four years of law school and a license to practice law. She does this while working at a bar and raising two sons. Her sole motivation, her mission tinged with zealotry, is to free Kenny from prison before he completely self-destructs; his torment is all but unbearable.

What drives "Conviction" is not just Betty's journey, and all that entails (a broken marriage, her boys asking to live with their father), but an embedded question: is Kenny really innocent? In the early '80s, there was no DNA testing of blood evidence. So when Betty locates, against all odds, the bloody clothes and blood samples from the perpetrator and manages, with the help of Barry Scheck of the Innocents Project, to get it tested, the question looms — will it prove that Kenny, who is a short-fused train wreck, did indeed commit the crime? Had the screenplay not been limited to the facts, the character of Kenny would have had some interesting possibilities.

The cast of "Conviction" is top-drawer. Swank gives a signature performance. She is supported by the hugely talented Sam Rockwell, who sits across a visitor's table never quite convincing enough in his declarations of innocence. Melissa Leo, Minnie Driver and Juliette Lewis all are superb, as is Ari Graynor in a small role as Kenny's estranged daughter.

Of course, the film is predictable, it's outcome foretold. And with a lesser cast it might have flatlined. But these all are consummate actors, and they move "Conviction" from a mediocre, familiar template into the realm of the engaging.

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