Ah, the road movie: a genre so elastic it can be made to fit any larger category, from comedy all the way down to horror. And depending on that category, there are always a few things you can expect to see. If it’s a comedy, you know your story’s going to be about an odd couple who, despite their differences, come to appreciate one another through a series of misadventures. There’s a car that’s going to get wrecked, of course. Usually someone gets drunk or stoned, or both. And don’t be surprised if the cops get involved at some point. If this is what you’re after, look no further than Due Date, a by-the-book road movie that’s enjoyable and surprisingly innocuous in this age of raunchy humor. Unfortunately, it’s also about as disposable as your empty bag of popcorn.
Robert Downey Jr. plays Peter Highman, an architect who is trying to get from Atlanta to Los Angeles in time for the birth of his first child. His fellow traveler for the long journey is Zach Galifianakis’ Ethan Tremblay, a well-intentioned goober whose love for Two and a Half Men has inspired him to seek an acting career in Hollywood. The trouble starts when Ethan ignites an altercation on the plane that gets both men kicked off and put on a no-fly list. Stripped of his luggage and wallet, Peter apparently has no other way of getting home than to partner up with Ethan for (what else?) a wacky few days on the road.
From there, the movie is basically what you’d expect. There’s the requisite car disaster as Ethan falls asleep at the wheel and accidentally launches their rental off an overpass. There’s the moment when the disparate characters bond thanks to the magic of pot. And there’s a car chase involving the cops as Ethan frees Peter from the custody of Mexican border guards.
Just don’t expect any of this to reach the comic heights achieved by The Hangover, which also paired Galifianakis with director Todd Phillips. It’s funny, to be sure, but more of a chuckle kind of funny than a laugh-out-loud riot. Think of it as The Hangover Lite. There are some standout moments, though, particularly the gags involving Ethan’s dog Sonny and the coffee can holding the ashes of his deceased father. Also, keep an eye out for Danny McBride, of Eastbound & Down fame. His turn as a “handicapable” Western Union employee who cuts Peter down to size is one of the movie’s best moments.
As Peter, Downey gives a performance that’s as good as you’d expect it to be. No one plays an exasperated, well-off everyman with quite the same precision and comic timing. Is he still playing himself, as he did in Iron Man 2? Yeah, basically. But the difference between watching Robert Downey Jr. play himself and watching another actor do the same is that Downey always exudes confidence and charm, even when his character has to act like a jerk.
Likewise, Galifianakis’ Ethan could have easily become annoying, but a subplot in which his character mourns his father’s death saves him from becoming a one-note part. It gives both Galifianakis and Downey a chance to do more than just act crazy, and it also leads to an important plot point set at the Grand Canyon. Standing on the edge, tears rolling down his face, Ethan must decide: will he let go of his father’s ashes, or is it too soon? It’s an important moment for both characters, and also the most visually impressive scene in the movie. The Grand Canyon has never looked so formidable.
What’s unfortunate about Due Date though (and the same can be said of The Hangover) is that director Phillips and screenwriter Alan R. Cohen never find a way to give their story any meaning beyond what’s on the surface. It steers clear of the needless raunch in Judd Apatow’s blockbusters (for the most part), but paradoxically, it’s nowhere as meaningful as The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up or Funny People, which were able to transcend crassness and actually say something of moral value. So while Due Date is a great character-driven comedy that mostly avoids the coarseness that plagues so many modern comedies, it never feels as relevant as Apatow’s oeuvre, excesses aside.
Andrew Welch is a freelance writer from Roanoke, Texas.