“Due Date,” starring Robert Downey, Jr., and Zach Galifianakis, is a buddy/road trip movie which will remind people of a certain age (or frequent watchers of the Comedy Channel) of “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles,” which hit the big screen 23 years ago. It follows much of the plot arc of that Steve Martin/John Candy vehicle, from beginning to predictable end. This being the 21st century, however, it’s rated “R” for profanity and drug use, so it will likely not become a holiday favorite like its predecessor or another John Hughes family classic, “Home Alone.”
Both the Hughes films are set at holiday time and involve a transportation foul up, a not unfamiliar occurrence. Like Martin, Downey plays an uptight businessman trying to get home. But his character, L.A. architect Peter Highman, is grounded by the weather but by his multiple run-ins with fellow traveler Ethan Tremblay (Galifianakis), a would-be actor heading for Hollywood hoping to break into TV. The two of them get kicked off the plane after inadvertently switching bags, and they somehow wind up on the no-fly list, one of the movie’s many improbable plot points.
From there, it’s a short, though not logical, shift to get Peter and Zach together in a rental car heading from Atlanta in order for Peter to get back to his wife (Michelle Monaghan) in time for her scheduled C-section. Complications ensue, mostly based on the chasm between the two characters. Peter is a highly intelligent, successful father-to-be, but one with significant anger management issues. His wit and sarcasm are largely wasted on the man-child Ethan, whose non sequitur replies generate most of the movie’s best moments.
Unhappily, director Todd Phillips has to lard in lots of other kinds of jokes—gross-out jokes, masturbation (human and canine) jokes, infidelity jokes, handicapped veteran jokes, you name it—attempting to throw everything against the comedic wall and see what sticks. The result often feels improvisational, as if Phillips let the actors run with the scenes. Downey being a much more skilled, intense movie star than Galifianakis, the imbalance imparts a laughter-killing awkwardness to the proceedings. So does the needless insertion of sentimental back stories for both characters. And Phillips, having put the two together in a car, feels obliged to throw in chases, crashes, and general vehicular mayhem, always a surefire filler when comic invention falters.
“Due Date” suffers from a poor release time, too. It wants to be a summer or back-to-college laugh fest, aimed squarely at the 18 to 30-year old male who will pass the word to his buddies: the same formula that worked for Phillips and Galifianakis in last year’s “The Hangover.” But it comes at the front edge of the “serious” movies wave, the surfeit of would-be Oscar nominees that producers like to cram together at year’s end. Given the amount of pre-release advertising, as well as the popular Galifianakis’s presence, it may do well at the box office. I’d recommend waiting until the good ones show up.