It’s a credit to Robert Downey, Jr., and Zach Galifianakis that Due Date works as well as it does. They share a chemistry and loose style that makes many of their scenes together feel like they’re improvising their dialogue and actions. It lends a high-wire feel to the proceedings that increases the entertainment value. Watching them spin funny bits out of shopworn gags lifted wholesale from films like Planes, Trains & Automobiles and The Big Lebowski is worth the price of admission, even if the script that they are working overtime to breathe life into is nothing more than your average road trip comedy.

Downey, Jr., plays Peter, a high-strung architect trying to travel from Atlanta to Los Angeles for the scheduled C-section birth of his first child. Through contrived circumstances involving mixed-up baggage with Ethan (Galifianakis), an obnoxious aspiring actor, they are both kicked off their flight and put on the no-fly list. Thus begins a cross-country odyssey that finds the odd couple relying on each other to make it to their destination.

At this point in cinematic history, the story has been told so many times, it writes itself: Ethan is the gregarious, socially awkward schlub who will make life miserable for the uptight Peter. Along the way, he will teach Peter to loosen up and embrace life through his outrageous shenanigans. These movies tend not to work on me because I usually find myself identifying with the “uptight jerk.” When paired with the unbearably obnoxious “free spirit,” more often than not, I find the uptight jerk to be sane and responding in a rational manner to the over-the-top demonstrations he’s faced with. Only the combined talents of John Hughes, Steve Martin, and John Candy have managed to make this formula work for me in the past.

But director Todd Phillips and his writers do two smart things to tweak the formula and make it work:

  1. They make Peter truly unlikable. His behavior may be from stress about becoming a father and the psychological damage of being abandoned when he was a child, but that doesn’t make him any less of an actual jerk. It gives Downey, Jr., a true transformation to play that isn’t completely unbelievable.
  2. They let Ethan go so far over-the-top that you aren’t supposed to look to him to teach Peter a moral about life. At times, his behavior is so inappropriate that you start to wonder if he views his life as one big acting exercise and wants to see how people respond to his performance.

In the hands of less confident performers, the temptation would be to go too far in making their characters sympathetic or, in the opposite direction, too outrageous. Thankfully, Downey, Jr., and Galifianakis strike the right balance and never betray their performances with sudden swings into maudlin territory. Even when Peter is describing how his father abandoned him or Ethan is mourning his dead father, the actors manage to make the transition to a more serious tone believable. In this ridiculous movie, that is impressive.

Even though the leads give it their all, Phillips is unable to completely avoid all the pitfalls of the road movie. Peter and Ethan end up on side trips where they encounter characters that are only partially formed collections of quirks. This would be more forgivable if these characters revealed something about Peter and Ethan. But other than a brief visit with a drug dealer (Juliette Lewis), none of these detours offer much in the way of laughs or character development.

As with the better road movies, Due Date is at its best when it sticks with its two leads. Thankfully, that seems to be a fact that Phillips realizes. Together, Downey, Jr., and Galifianakis provide enough laughs to glide the film over a few rough spots. It may not be a classic of the genre, but at least it’s consistently funny. That’s more than I can say for the majority of comedies that have recently come out of Hollywood.

Matt Wedge is a writer and film critic currently doing time in the suburbs of Connecticut.

Comments (2)

On November 27, 2010 at 12:15 AM, Matt Stechel wrote...

boy i’m glad someone actually liked this as much as i did. The two leads really do pull this one off. The best thing I can also say about it is that the two of them don’t really learn anything so much as tolerence for one another, they both end the movie exactly how they started it — just on friendlier terms with one another — which i thought was great. Life lessons weren’t really learned….they were just touched upon.

The film was unexpectedly touching tho — when the dead fathers’ ashes were finally brewed (a scene you of course totally see coming once that coffee can was introduced) and Galfinakis has his little break down — and Downey comforts him — i thought that was well handled — ditto the scattering the ashes sequence at the grand canyon…the scenes handling the characters’ emotions — despite the fact that the characters truly aren’t supposed to be anywhere near flesh and blood characters — were surprisingly really well handled. I also quite liked Galifinakis’ quick What did i do? what did i do? what did i do? reaction after accidently shooting Downey in the leg. That felt real….a truly impressive turn for a film that just an hour earlier had he the same character falling asleep behind the wheel of the car, getting them both in a horrible accident and then not even apologizing for it. (that one scene almost made me give up on the film for good right there — -i did not enjoy that one sequence at all) the film really surprised me in a way i certainly hadn’t expected to be surprised by it esp from the ads to it. It was pretty well handled and i’m a little surprised that the vast majority of reviewers didn’t at least mention how well the 2 leads played off each other here.

The film was just so much better then i ever thought it would be going in.

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On November 27, 2010 at 10:20 AM, Matt Wedge wrote...

I really appreciated that the movie was able to take stale gags that I’ve seen a million times before, and make me laugh. And the simple fact is that Downey and Galifianakis are the reasons that most of those gags worked. And like you, I appreciated that Peter never learned anything from Ethan. Ethan’s not the guy you want to take life lessons from anyway. All Peter learned was to be tolerant and a little nicer to people other than his wife. But I will say that I can understand why critics and people who hate the film feel the way they do. The jokes have all been done before and both characters are so far over the top that they are ridiculous. If the performances hadn’t won me over and drawn out the laughs, I probably would have written a negative review just out of the lack of any fresh ideas.

I don’t think people realize just how hard it is to play comedy. You can have the greatest script in the world and if you cast the wrong actors, it’s going to feel like a dud. That’s why I was so impressed with what ended up on the screen here. Downey and Galifianakis had a mediocre script that they turned into something funny. In my mind that’s worth praising and recommending, in spite of the film’s other flaws. Of course, I could just be going soft.

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