At the start of Due Date, Robert Downey, Jr.’s character leaves a message on his pregnant wife’s cell phone. He describes a dream he had, one in which a bear chews through his child’s umbilical cord immediately after the birth. By the end of the film, he becomes convinced that the dream was prophetic. I became convinced he was deluding himself – or, more accurately, the filmmakers were deluding themselves into believing they had actually pulled off a display of twisted symbolism. The only thing they pull off is an act of desperate contrivance, which comes in the form of an oddity played by Zach Galifianakis. No, not a character. An oddity. When the moment comes and the dream is interpreted, I sank in my seat, realizing that I had endured nearly 100 minutes of lowbrow humor for nothing. There’s no payoff, apart from more oddness.
Due Date is directed by Todd Phillips, who some years ago helmed The Hangover to the tremendous box office and critical acclaim. I admit that the film never appealed to my sense of humor, but at least it had an engaging story. Not only does Due Date suffer from a plot that’s neither original nor interesting, it’s also a nonstop barrage of unappealing physical and verbal gags. Many of these are given to Galifianakis, whose character doesn’t even work within the context of a vulgar road trip buddy comedy; he’s a bizarre goofball caricature that plays on one note – a man defined solely by flat, tiresome, scene-killing quirks. He’s so thoroughly off-putting, it’s impossible to believe anyone could grow to love him as a friend. In real life, a man like this would be committed to a sanitarium and forced to undergo extensive psychological testing.
Downey plays Los Angeles architect Peter Highman, a father-to-be excited to fly home from Atlanta in time for his child’s birth. As soon as he arrives at the airport, he crosses paths with the over-the-top Ethan Tremblay (Galifianakis), who, as it turns out, is also on his way to Los Angeles. Specifically, he’s on his way to Hollywood; he’s an aspiring actor who dreams of making an appearance on Two and a Half Men. An unlikely luggage mix-up forces both Peter and Ethan off the plane and onto a no-fly list. This forces Peter into hitching a ride with Ethan and his beloved pet dog, Sonny, in a rented car. Thus begins a madcap, disaster-ridden cross-country journey, highlighted by such pleasant visuals as the dog masturbating, Peter getting beaten by a surly paraplegic veteran, and Peter punching a young boy in the chest. We’re also treated to a run in with corrupt Mexican border-patrol officers, resulting in a car chase that miraculously resolves itself as soon as the scene ends.
Ethan is developed on nothing other than his ability to drive Peter and everyone else he comes into contact with insane. He has no social skills. He’s immature, pretty much to the point where it’s obvious he has a mental disorder. He regularly smokes marijuana, which he claims is for glaucoma. He dresses like a bum who robbed a thrift store. He has a curious habit of asking incredibly stupid questions, saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, and spouting facts and figures that are wrong. He carries his father’s ashes in a coffee can. He parades his dog around as if the poor little thing were actually a human friend. He’s so utterly unlikable that I simply didn’t buy the idea that Peter could ever come to accept him. Perhaps Galifianakis is qualified to play a role like this, but to be perfectly frank, I’m getting tired of seeing him play the same eccentric loony he has been playing pretty much his entire career.
This leaves Downey. While playing the hapless straight man allowed me to like his character a lot more than Galifianakis’, I’m wondering if that ultimately contributed to the film’s unappealing tone. Comedy has thrived on mismatching (Laurel and Hardy, Abbot and Costello, Martin and Lewis), but here, it doesn’t feel like a calculated move so much as an unfortunate misdirection. Downey and Galifianakis are so completely ill-fitting together that absolutely nothing they say or do registers as funny – it merely registers as awkward.
The same can be said about the story, which draws in the audience not through a genuinely intriguing series of events but by appealing to our inner immature teenager. Crude movies can be hilariously enjoyable, but there has to be something more to it other than crudeness if you get my meaning; there needs to be an engaging plot, good characters, and a clever screenplay. This movie falls short in every respect. Consider a brief subplot involving Jamie Foxx, who plays Peter’s best friend. When Peter suspects him of something terrible, we expect it to be integral to the rest of the film. But it isn’t. In fact, it’s resolved almost as soon as it begins. That begs the question of why this particular subplot was included in the first place. I suspect it was only because it gave Downey and Foxx the chance to work together again following The Soloist. Due Date tries and tries hard, but unfortunately, it just doesn’t have what it takes to be a comedy classic.