There is a moment in Todd Phillips’ new film “Due Date” when Robert Downey, Jr.’s character, Peter Highman, has a splendid opportunity to walk away from Zach Galifianakis’ character, Ethan Tremblay. He would also be completely justified in doing so, considering the absolute hell that Ethan has put him through up until then.
Peter chooses not to leave, and that is perhaps the most implausible thing about “Due Date,” a road trip comedy about a man trying to get to home from Atlanta to Los Angeles in five days, just in time for the birth of his son. His biggest obstacle: Ethan, a bearded man-child who doesn’t merely lack social skills, but somehow manages to transcend vulgarity to become absurdity incarnate.
Ethan believes in the deepest realm of his heart that he is a first-rate actor, which is why he is on the way to L.A. when he crosses paths with Peter at the airport. Following a misunderstanding with airline security, they are both added to the “no fly” list, and because Peter left his wallet with his luggage on the plane, he decides to catch a ride with Ethan and his masturbating dog, Sonny.
Of course, this is going to be an agonizing trip for Peter, who has issues with pent-up rage. Ethan knows just how to get under Peter’s skin, but seems utterly clueless that he is doing so. Hindrances do escalate more and more, but somehow never become quite as outrageous as in Phillips’ previous comedy, “The Hangover” (with perhaps one exception during an accidental border crossing – the scene leads to a car chase ending in what resembles a mini-homage to the Mack truck flip in Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight”).
On some levels, “Due Date” is funnier than “The Hangover.” Often times in these movies, the “straight man” tends to react implausibly to his situation, and the whole routine comes off as false. Downey, Jr.’s performance here prevents that error from ever occurring. When he gets angry at Ethan’s idiocy, he thoroughly loses it. Like in the “Iron Man” movies, he is entirely convincing in a role that really shouldn’t be.
Many assumed here that Galifianakis would simply reprise his role as the demented brother-in-law from “The Hangover,” and in some respects he has. But there are enough alterations to enjoy Ethan as a fairly new character with new eccentricities, including a coffee can containing his father’s ashes that he carries around, a waffle allergy and a perm. Galifianakis is a peculiar, funny guy, and in a few instances, he shows that he has terrific dramatic potential.
There are also some great cameos from Juliette Lewis, who is hysterical as Ethan’s drug dealer, rapper RZA as an airport screener and Jaime Foxx as Peter’s friend Darryl. The supporting roles in road trip movies are crucial in giving the main actors scenarios along the way that are interesting enough to keep the audience’s attention. All of these actors – Lewis in particular – pass this test and keep the journey strange and entertaining.
Todd Phillips has made tremendous strides as a director over the past decade. Audiences may remember his first film “Road Trip,” about a group of college kids racing across the country to intercept a videotape. Now, with another long-distance, close-quarters car journey, “Due Date” reveals his growth as a filmmaker in both maturity and style. Grade: B