When you start your career with documentaries about G.G. Allin and frat house hazing, it’s not much of a leap to move into comedies centered around some of the world’s absolute worst people undertaking nonsensical and increasingly erratic hero quests. Director Todd Phillips made such a move, bringing the world Road Trip, Old School, The Hangover, and now Due Date.
Oddly, as is almost immediately evident, Due Date owes an awful lot to John Hughes’ gentler Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. And by an awful lot, I mean that Due Date is basically the same movie, but with more drugs, gun play, and international border crossings and a far less believable storyline. But you will forgive that within the first 15 minutes, because what John Hughes didn’t have was Zach Galifianakis. As Ethan Trembley, Galifianakis steals the screen, often just by being in the frame. His physical appearance alone, enhanced with subtle cues like an ever-present hairbrush, Lilith Faire shirt, and kabbalah bracelet is enough to make you shoot your Coke Zero out your nose.
Like John Candy’s Del Griffith, Trembley is a seemingly-sweet big guy, with a flabby white gut and a cheesy perm. Through a series of unfortunate events (many of which he causes) he’s paired with Peter Highman (Robert Downey Jr.), an architect trying to get across country in time for the birth of his first child. Yes, Highman’s a neurotic, Bluetooth-wearing prick, but unlike Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, as an audience member, you’re pretty much right there along with him as he threatens, repeatedly, to choke Trembley out.
That’s what makes Due Date so compulsively likeable. Trembley is such a clueless weirdo, at once completely self-involved and insanely inquisitive, that you can both understand why Highman would want to kill him, but still root for the guys to become buddies. And they do! In one of the best stoner-vision sequences to ever be put on film, Highman’s world view shifts, turning him from a spiteful rageaholic into a thoughtful, decent human being. Imagine that.
While the heart is writ large, the comedy is in the details, like Trembley’s sartorial style, or his very specific life goal of getting on Two and a Half Men. Downey acts the hell out of what could have been a rehash of any high-strung urban male character. And there are excellent cameos galore, particularly from Juliette Lewis, Eastbound and Down’s Danny McBride, and Jamie Foxx.
By the time the characters reach their goal, they’re much more likable, and that makes Due Date’s comedy that much easier to deliver.