Due Date (Warner Bros.) is a movie that’s been made countless times before, from It Happened One Night to Planes, Trains and Automobiles to The Sure Thing: a pair of completely dissimilar people, forced by circumstance to travel a long distance in one another’s company, get in and out of a series of comic scrapes before falling in love. Or becoming the best of friends, which, by the homosocial logic of the buddy comedy, amounts to the same thing. It’s not that a reworking of this familiar material couldn’t be made funny again, but it would take a lot more imagination than this movie, directed by dude-comedy auteur Todd Phillips ( Road Trip, Old School, The Hangover), seems willing to put in.
The chemistry between these two mismatched leads, played by Robert Downey Jr. and Zach Galifianakis, seems inspired by the relationship between Steve Martin and John Candy in the classic Planes, Trains and Automobiles (which, if you haven’t seen already, you should rent sometime before Thanksgiving). Downey’s character, Peter Highman, is a Type-A architect trying to get from Atlanta to L.A. in time for his wife’s (Michelle Monaghan) scheduled C-section. Galifianakis plays Ethan Tremblay, an aspiring actor with a perm, a French bulldog, a coffee can containing his dead father’s ashes, and a lot of irritating mannerisms. (As a character, Ethan doesn’t make a lot of sense; one minute he’s a fat stoner slob in the Old School mode, the next minute he’s almost like a mincing gay stereotype, though his sexual valence is never quite clear.)
After these two strangers board the same plane, Ethan manages to get them both kicked off—and placed on a no-fly list—by loudly discussing bombs within earshot of the flight crew. Peter, with his wallet and all his I.D. left behind on the plane, is forced to rely on Ethan to rent a car and make the trip cross-country. And then they make excellent time, arrive safely, and part with a firm handshake, the end. Kidding!
Of course our heroes encounter obstacles (a car crash, a declined credit card, a wrong turn that takes them over the Mexican border) and oddball characters (a spacey pot dealer played by Juliette Lewis, a paraplegic Western Union employee played by Danny McBride). Of course they get on each other’s last nerves, with Peter at one point abandoning Ethan at a rest stop in the middle of nowhere. And of course the tightly wound Peter gradually learns to let his guard down, and the scattered, narcissistic Ethan begins to get at least an inkling of how incredibly annoying he is to be around.
But that’s the thing: Neither of the two main characters in Due Date really changes, or changes in an emotionally plausible enough way, to hit the heartwarming note Phillips seems to be aiming for. I’ve written before about the remorse deficit in recent buddy comedies. In Superbad, Drillbit Taylor, Hot Tub Time Machine and other films about male friendship, there’s been a tendency for protagonists to treat each other truly shittily, in ways that a real-life friendship might never recover from, then forgive each other far too easily just in time for a jerry-rigged happy ending.
A few scenes before the end of Due Date, as the two men peer down into the gulf of the Grand Canyon, it’s revealed that Ethan did something really terrible to Peter near the beginning of the movie and has been lying about it ever since. (Spoiler: Place your mouse here if you want to know what Ethan said.) If a real-life friend—especially one you’d known for 36 hours and trusted for about 12—did something like this to you, you’d not only end the friendship then and there but fight the urge to push him off the cliff. Instead, after a brief outburst, Peter swallows his anger, invites Ethan back into the car, and never mentions the infraction again. We’re supposed to accept this as a generous gesture of friendship, but it reads as a pure narrative contrivance. If the goodwill that’s developed between the two men isn’t contingent upon some basic code of ethics (that Ethan has violated), why should we believe in or care about their friendship?
Phillips, who’s always enjoyed pushing gross-out taboos just to the R-rating point, tries to wring laughs from the following situations: masturbating while sitting a few feet away from a stranger in a parked car; spitting on someone else’s dog; spitting on a glass partition that separates you from an office clerk; watching a dog masturbate. Basically, as many situations as possible that combine spitting, masturbation, and dogs, plus a moment when one man throws up on another’s gunshot wound. But the most offensive bodily fluid being hurled around in Due Date are the tears that Phillips dishonestly tries to wrest from the audience’s eyes.