Robert Downey, Jr. and Zack Galifianakis in a road comedy that never gets up to speed.
Mismatched-buddy comedies are a long and vaunted tradition in Hollywood, dating at least as far back as the Abbott & Costello/Laurel & Hardy films of the 1940s and continuing most notably, at least to Gen-X audiences, with John Hughes’ 1987 Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Director Todd Phillips’ follow-up to The Hangover borrows the structure of that beloved Steve Martin – John Candy effort, teaming an uptight professional with an easygoing, misunderstood slob on a cross-country trek with a clearly defined deadline involving the straight man’s family.
Comparisons between the two films are unavoidable, and that’s bad news for Due Date, which relies too much on co-star Zach Galifianakis’ weirdo schtick without building enough jokes around it to lend the story any comic vitality. Robert Downey, Jr., continuing his streak of always playing the smartest guy in any given room, lends his acerbic poise perhaps too much, inadvertently weighing the already-dark script with too much straightman snark. That’s not to say there aren’t occasional funny moments, but like highway rest stops they always seem too far apart when you need them and perpetually available when you don’t.
Architect Peter Highman (Downey, Jr.) is desperate to return to Los Angeles from a business trip to Atlanta before his wife Sarah (Michelle Monaghan) gives birth to their first child. But a preflight mixup with wannabe actor Ethan Tremblay (Galifianakis) gets them both kicked off the flight and placed on a no-fly list. Highman somewhat incredibly leaves his wallet on the plane; while attempting to steal a rental car from the airport lot he’s reunited with Tremblay, who offers to drive him to Los Angeles by way of apology.
A whirl of fuzz in layers of 1990s-era fashions and a delicate hair perm, Tremblay is a gentle if self-sabotaging soul, the owner of a Two and a Half Men fansite who admits to once running himself over with a car and pronounces Shakespeare as “Shakesbeard.” But he’s also grieving for a recently diseased father whose ashes he carries in a can of coffee grounds, seeking closure but putting off several opportunities to get it. Conversely, Highman is all white-collar privilege and suburban entitlement. You can imagine him readily enjoying the same amenities as George Clooney’s similar road warrior from Up In The Air while sneering at the slobs flying business class.
The two are severely underqualified to attempt a 3000 mile drive separately, let alone together, and the interpersonal friction as they reach strange locations ought to propel the comic give-and-take. Yet the script from former King of the Hill writers Alan R. Cohen and Adam Freedland (with additional work by Adam Sztykiel from Phillip’s story) doesn’t have the duo go very many places, with the ensuing result that the story… doesn’t really go any place. Instead, the stops they make are long, protracted, and disjointed: a trip to a vendor of “medical” marijuana in Alabama; a Western Union branch in Louisiana; incredibly again, the Mexican border and the Grand Canyon. Despite the time-table crucial to the plot, there’s seldom any sense of urgency, despite Highman’s frequent, panicked calls home.
One of Planes, Trains and Automobiles‘ most endearing – and enduring – virtues rested in the commonality of its situations: Martin’s yuppie snob and Candy’s blue-collar lummox negotiated the impersonal, indifferent hurdles of cross-country travel over a grueling three-day odyssey, facing soulless hotel rooms, numbingly incompetent customer service, and many, many other small setbacks that seemed incomprehensible in their banality. But where that film mined the everyday, the shock value of Phillps et al.’s script explores only the less ordinary, and frequently for shock value: Highman is busted for drugs at the Mexican border; Tremblay forgets his own name as the two try to receive a wire transfer; Tremblay’s dog masturbates alongside his owner.
Stalling things even further is a wasted, unnecessary subplot involving Highman’s college friend (Jamie Foxx) and the possibility that he’s actually the father of Sarah’s child. It’s an unexplored, inert distraction from the rest of the story, and the payoff at film’s end is mostly flat as a result. An earlier gag involving a crippled war veteran (Danny McBride) beating Highman with a club for his arrogance is almost painful to watch; meant to be outre, it’s just mean-spirited to both characters. Finally, a late revelation from Tremblay will seem to anyone who’s seen The Hangover as too derivative by half of another plot twist also involving Galifianakis’ character in that film.
Ultimately, Due Date is an unfunny comedy that’s possibly more rewarding on home video than in the theatre, and maybe then only for devoted fans of its several stars. But in one sense it doesn’t matter: the director and performers will make better films, many of which will likely look just as good within their previews, too. (Due Date is the epitome of a film whose best moments appear in its ads.) By the time these things happen we’ll have forgotten all about this misfire. Honestly, we’ve already started.
- Michael Kabel