The spirit of Planes, Trains and Automobiles looms large over Due Date, which is not necessarily a bad thing. There are infinite permutations in the premise of an odd couple stuck on a long road trip, and the combination of Robert Downey Jr. as a straight-laced architect and Zach Galifianakis as a pothead aspiring actor with a propensity for horrendous accidents (and hairstyles) is inspired. The actors are fine: It’s their long, arduous trek that lets the movie down.
Peter (Downey) and Ethan (Galifianakis) meet in disastrous fashion at the Atlanta airport, where they happen to share a flight to Los Angeles. Peter is rushing home for the birth of his child, due by C-section in three days, while Ethan dreams of landing a recurring spot on the TV sitcom Two and a Half Men. A series of amusingly contrived incidents later, both are kicked off the plane and placed in a no-fly zone, and Peter leaves his wallet in his luggage, leaving him at the mercy of the friendly, exceptionally eccentric Ethan, who has a rental car and offers him a ride.
Director Todd Phillips, coming off the most successful R-rated comedy in history (The Hangover), takes some surprisingly caustic turns with his Felix-Oscar scenario. Downey plays Peter as an intolerant jerk who does not suffer indignity easily. Commonly cast as a suave and likable wise guy, he is like a dark version of Steve Martin’s harried businessman in Planes – capable of punching an annoying 8-year-old in the stomach or spitting in the face of an adorable pug. Meanness suits him.
Galifianakis, doing another variation of his bizarre man-child persona, serves the same purpose John Candy did in Planes: His highly annoying habits and curious tics are a front for his profound loneliness after the death of his father. Ethan is carrying his dad’s ashes in a can, a device that results in the movie’s biggest laugh but also allows a growing streak of sentimentality to creep into the proceedings. The picture zigzags among bits of surreal humor (including a hilarious sequence set to Pink Floyd’s Hey You in which Pete and Ethan get really, really high), comic action and car crashes reminiscent of vintage John Landis, and tender moments in which Peter gradually learns to see past Ethan’s obnoxious shell.
What’s missing is a compelling plotline to make this trip seem less of a drag. The movie starts to feel mighty long after the pair has a protracted faceoff with authorities at the U.S.-Mexico border. Soon, you can’t wait for them to get to L.A. Road pictures such as Midnight Run worked well because the characters were so much fun to spend time with, no matter where the road took them. In Due Date, Downey and Galifianakis are game, but you wouldn’t want to ride shotgun with them.
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Zach Galifianakis, Michelle Monaghan, Jamie Foxx, Juliette Lewis, Danny McBride, RZA.
Director: Todd Phillips.
Screenwriters: Alan R. Cohen, Alan Freedland, Adam Sztykiel, Todd Phillips.
Producers: Todd Phillips, Dan Goldberg.
A Warner Bros. release. Running time: 95 minutes. Vulgar language, drug use, sexual situations, adult themes. Opens Friday Nov. 5 at area theaters.