As should be obvious from the trailer, Due Date is basically a reworking of the classic Steve Martin-John Candy vehicle (no pun intended) Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. Or maybe it’s not obvious, if that film has slipped out of the public consciousness.
Peter Highman (Robert Downey Jr.) is the uptight, worldy, urbane role, while Ethan Tremblay (Zach Galifianakis) is the laid-back, ignorant, rube. Both of them are trying to get from Atlanta to Los Angeles; Ethan to start an acting career, and Peter to see the birth of his first child. Ethan’s bumblings get both of them kicked off of their plane and onto the no-fly list, which sets up a cross-country road trip where highjinks, of course, ensue.
Galifianakis brings his strongest suit: his absolute lack of any form of shame. It’s always fun to watch him throw himself headlong into the most humiliating situations with understated gusto. However, where John Candy’s Del Griffith was sometimes oblivious, Galifianakis’ Ethan is so insistently obnoxious that it’s hard to feel quite as sorry for him. It doesn’t help matters that the film blows his entire load of pathos within the first act, so he spends the rest of his time just getting more and more annoying.
Worse, Downey lacks Steve Martin’s comedic sensibilities; although, to be fair, so does Martin these days. Neal Page was exasperated, but Peter is simply mean. Neal may have been unfriendly or uncharitable at times, but he was never really unethical towards Del, and the worst of his behavior doesn’t really kick in until he’s already put up with a lot. But Peter’s cutthroat impulses come straight to the fore within the first day of the trip, blowing past unethical and straight to immoral. We can’t ever feel too sorry for him, because he’s a colossal jerk. The film gets out ahead of this characterization by referring to his anger issues early on, but it feels more like a cover for Downey’s inability to play a real schlimazel to Galifianakis’ schlemiel.
Director Todd Phillips front-loads the action with spectacular stunts and gross-out humor, which have worked for him in Road Trip, Old School, and The Hangover. But once you go for the easy gags and the big crashes in the first act, where do you have left to go? The only real shred of dramatic tension keeping this from being one half-baked gag after another is a subplot involving Peter’s wife (Michelle Monaghan) and his best friend (Jamie Foxx), and that never really goes anywhere. It could be cut out entirely, and the story would be almost completely unaffected. There’s none of John Hughes’ careful buildup, and this movie never really hangs together his work does.
It’s good for a cheap laugh, and if you’ve liked Phillips and Galifianakis before you’ll probably enjoy it well enough. But if you really want to see how it’s done, just go rent Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.
Worth it: not really. The material’s been done before, and better, and renting that movie is far cheaper.
Bechdel test: fail.