When director Todd Phillips cast Zach Galifianakis in the 2009 comedy The Hangover, it helped rocket the comic to superstardom practically overnight -- the movie was a smash success, and Galifianakis its breakout star. So it should come as no surprise that Phillips and Galifianakis are attempting to recreate that alchemy with their new film, Due Date, a road comedy which once again finds the comedian playing an oddball misfit with little understanding of how to relate to people. In The Hangover, Galifianakis' character worked (only some of the time, I would argue against popular opinion) because he was part of an ensemble and fit the puzzle in a way that played to his strengths. Due Date, however, asks him to carry almost the full load (Robert Downey Jr. is predictably appealing, though the film asks him to swing wildly from straight everyman to borderline sociopath), and it might be more than another of the comic's eccentric characters can bear.
The Modern Road Movie
Robert Downey Jr. stars as Peter Highman, a high-strung architect looking to get home to his wife, who his about to deliver their first child. At the airport, he bumps into (literally) Galifianakis' Ethan Tremblay, a wanna-be actor and overall disaster of a human being on his way to Hollywood to achieve his dreams of showbusiness success. A series of elaborate (and convoluted) events lands both men on the no-fly list, and Peter -- who is without his wallet, credit cards or identification -- is forced to hitch a ride across the country with Ethan. From there, it's a series of misunderstandings and encounters ranging from zany to downright chaotic, from a rumble with a Western Union employee (Danny McBride in a cameo) to a massive auto accident to a full-on high-speed chase across the Mexican border.
Though the movie provides yet another strong showcase for Zach Galifianakis (and even affords him a few moments to show off some impressive dramatic range in a manner that doesn't feel forced or gooey), I'm still not convinced he's found a role that fits who he is comedically. He's great at creating odd and offbeat types with some basis in reality, but too often that's all that these movies ask of him; he winds up little more than a clueless, odd series of quirks. I'm as happy as anyone that Galifiankis is finally a movie star -- he really is unpredictable -- but directors like Phillips only seem interested in using him one way. His unpredictability is become predictable.
Obviously, Due Date's biggest influence is John Hughes' Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Phillips' movie lacks the earlier film's heart -- its sweetness and genuine affection for its characters. That's ok; there's certainly a place in comedy for meanness and misanthropy. Just look at the work of Jody Hill. I'm not sure that's what Due Date achieves, though. It just presents two characters who are kind of grating and not always convincing as human beings, then strains their relationship (not to mention logic and credibility) more and more as the movie proceeds. When their eventual bonding occurs and Due Date reaches for warmth, the movie hasn't earned it. Phillips isn't aiming for comedy of discomfort, so why is it so unpleasant spending two hours in a car with these two?
Ultimately, Due Date feels like a placeholder movie. Todd Phillips gets to make a mainstream comedy with two very appealing and popular actors, and Galifianakis gets to stretch some commercial leading man muscle. It's not going to have much of a shelf life, but I suppose that's ok. And if it doesn't really tell us any more about who Phillips is as a filmmaker, consider that in addition to making The Hangover and Old School, he's also the guy who made Starsky & Hutch and School for Scoundrels. Maybe it tells us more than we think.
- Due Date is Rated R for language, drug use and sexual content
- Running Time: 100 minutes
- Release Date: 11/5/10
- Studio: Warner Bros.