Robert Downey Jr. endures cross country mayhem with “The Hangover’s” Zach Galifianakis in this frequently funny, but ultimately disposable frat boy riff on “Planes, Trains and Automobiles.”
Downey is Peter Highman, an uptight father-to-be trying to get from Atlanta to Los Angeles before his wife gives birth. When an altercation with the fey, irritating and impeccably permed Ethan Tremblay (Galifianakis) lands the two on the no-fly list, they commandeer a car and begin the cross-country trek. As road movie logic dictates, the tightly-wound Peter quickly has his nerves frayed by Ethan, who lapses into bizarre bouts of stupidity, is fond of asking inane questions, carries a small dog along with his father’s ashes and has an unfortunate way of relaxing himself before bed.
If you thought director Todd Phillips (“The Hangover”) would bypass the genre’s proclivity for car crashes, run-ins with the law and encounters with ill-tempered fellow travelers in favor of nuance and heart, you obviously haven’t been paying attention to the “Old School” director’s resume. Phillips follows the road trip formula to the letter, including the leads’ obligatory fight and reconciliation and the last-minute dash to the delivery room.
But who am I to second-guess the director of “Road Trip”? The formula works because it allows Downey and Galifianakis to let their personalities clash and the ever-moving scenery allows Phillips to distract audiences with a variety of chaotic and sometimes very funny sequences.
Galifianakis worked so well in “The Hangover” because he was used sparingly, an unpredictable and offensive wildcard that scored laughs because of how deranged he came across. Ethan’s a bit cuddlier and more idiotic, dulling some of Galifianakis’ edge. But just when you think the comedian is getting a bit too cute for comfort, he pulls a joke out of his pocket, be it his obliviousness over finding a drug dealer on Craigslist or his impromptu auditions in a rest stop bathroom. Few people are better at playing annoying and offensive better than Galifianakis, who can summon a laugh with just a gasp.
Downey plays the Steve Martin role to Galifianakis’ John Candy but forgets that the film’s uptight straight man needs to have a heart to rediscover. Few do a slow burn, tart response or explosive expletive better than Downey, but he goes a bit too far with the snark and turns Peter into more of a jerk than a harried traveler. Phillips seems to have left most of Michelle Monaghan’s scenes as Peter’s wife on the cutting room floor, taking away much of the reminder of why he’s in such a hurry to get home. As a result, Downey’s character often comes across as quite unlikable.
Phillips long ago proved he’s a master of the big gag and “Due Date” features several very funny moments. Peter’s solution to babysitting for a drug dealer (Juliette Lewis) gets a huge laugh and Phillips has fun with several stops along the way, particularly an unfortunate encounter with Danny McBride at a Western Union. Downey and Galifiankis have a delightful anti-chemistry and some of the film’s finest moments involve them bouncing their particular tics off each other.
Several moments designed to add depth and heart to the film feel oddly truncated, particularly a subplot involving Peter’s old friend (Jamie Foxx). Peter’s fears of impending fatherhood and issues with his own dad are rushed over and even the film’s climax seems a bit too eager to get the audience home on time. Only a stop at the Grand Canyon for Ethan to say a final goodbye to his father has any resonance.
Little missteps like that keep “Due Date” from being ranked with the classic road trip movies. I hate to bring up comparisons to “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” again, except that this film so clearly invites them. The reason people return to John Hughes’ classic time and again isn’t just for the big laughs, but because the film has a genuine heart.
“Due Date” is content to just deliver “Hangover”-style laughs and, admittedly, audiences will likely be satisfied with that. It’s a trip worth taking; I’m just not sure how many times you’ll want to repeat the journey.