An uptight guy is forced to travel across America with an obnoxious guy. That’s the simple, and by no means original, premise of the new road comedy Due Date, a 21st-Century spin on the 1987 John Hughes comedy Planes, Trains and Automobiles—it’s like Planes, Trains and Automobiles, jacked up on crack.
Directed by Todd Phillips of The Hangover, Due Date stars Robert Downey Jr. as uptight Peter Highman and Zach Galifianakis as obnoxious Ethan Tremblay.
Peter is a successful L.A. architect who’s in Atlanta on business, but itching to get home to his wife (Michelle Monaghan) in time for the birth, by c-section, of their first child. A run-in with the intolerable Ethan leads Peter into a wrangle with airport security, and both men get bumped from their flight and land on a no-fly list.
Peter also ends up missing his wallet, so when Ethan offers him a ride to “Hollywood”—he’s headed there to become an actor—Peter has no choice but to climb in.
What follows, of course, is a series of wacky episodes. But unlike Planes, Trains & Automobiles, in which Steve Martin was slightly stiff and fussy and John Candy was a bumbling but likable goof, Peter is an angry, anxious neurotic and Ethan is simply devoid of a single social skill, so pathologically inappropriate that he seems like he belongs in some sort of institution.
Thus the fine messes in which these two find themselves are correspondingly more extreme and ugly, in the manner of The Hangover. Ethan’s imbecility causes car crashes and wrong turns and accidental bullet wounds and even an arrest by the Mexican police.
It also leads the short-fused Peter to punch a little boy in the stomach, to insult a wheelchair-bound war vet and to spit in the face of a dog (Ethan’s marvelous French bulldog, who has a deadpan worthy of Buster Keaton).
Incredibly, director Phillips and screenwriters Alan R. Cohen, Alan Freedland and Adam Sztykiel still want Due Date to espouse the road movie’s usual, sentimental theme: that traveling together is appalling, but that it’s also a bonding experience.
Even more incredibly, thanks to the acting of Downey and Galifianakis, we actually do buy into the absurdly improbable bonding between the two men.
Due Date is a much more uneven piece of work than The Hangover, but it’s also much more interesting, because while the gags are mostly crass and mean-spirited slapstick, the two leads keep taking the movie into complex, troubling psychological depths. Some capable supporting actors, like Juliette Lewis, Jamie Foxx and Danny McBride, are given a scene or so each, to break up the sense that we’re seeing a two-character play.
But that’s essentially what the movie is. It turns out that Ethan has recently lost his father, whose ashes he’s carrying—his westward trek is a response to his grief. A couple of times in the course in the film, Peter is excoriating Ethan when suddenly Galifianakis lets you see Ethan’s very real and not at all comic bereavement spill out, in response to which Downey lets you see Peter’s fury and superciliousness drain away, replaced by empathy.
So the suspense in Due Date had, for me, nothing at all to do with whether Peter would make it home for his child’s birth.
Rather, I was on the edge of my seat worrying that Phillips would punish me, with the heavy-handed vulgarity of his comic touch, for caring about the connection that these two remarkable actors had forged in the middle of all this chaotic silliness.
Whether the crassness outweighs the humanity in the long run is a matter of individual taste, of course, but while I didn’t always like Due Date, I wouldn’t have wanted to miss these performances.