At first glance, Due Date might seem a lot like Roadtrip for Schmucks. There’s an uptight, business-savvy prick who has an important goal to achieve, and there’s a moronic man-child that continues to ruin things for him. The difference between the two movies is related to the casting and the mind of director Todd Phillips.
What would happen if Dinner for Schmucks was filmed on the road, and instead of giving Zach Galifianakis a side role, they made him the co-lead against someone not nearly as huggably soft as Paul Rudd?
The result is exactly what you might expect. Two leads that aren’t particularly likable, but who spend the entire road trip across the country earning, losing, and re-earning each other’s trust or (at least) toleration.
There’s a mix to Due Date that finds itself tonally somewhere in between Observe and Report and Animal House. It definitely isn’t the standard formulaic comedy, and it both triumphs and suffers from steering off the beaten path. Essentially, there’s no median here – what works, works beautifully, but what doesn’t, sinks like a stone.
Peter Highman (Robert Downey Jr) is heading from Atlanta to Los Angeles to witness his wife Sarah (Michelle Monaghan) give birth to their first child. When the bumbling Ethan Tremblay (Zach Galifianakis) gets both of them kicked off the plane and onto the no-fly list, Peter loses his wallet, and is forced to either steal a rental car or hop in with Ethan for 2,000 miles. It turns out that stealing the rental car would have been safer and broken fewer laws.
The best way to describe this film is as an unrealistic, realistic look at the standard Odd Couple comedy. It’s far more realistic because the two men aren’t reduced to sitcom levels of meanness. They’re actually mean. The things that they do to each other – from laughing at childhood traumas to spitting on beloved pets – is genuinely nasty, and it’s by sheer fate and lack of other options (with some conscience tossed in from time to time) that they have to stick together. However, the movie is grandly unrealistic based on the accidental crime spree that the two men go on and the lack of enforcement or true consequences for those actions. In one sense, the movie is fantastical. In the other, it’s about as naked and brutish as humanity can offer without diving headlong into melodrama.
This, of course, leads to some ridiculously funny moments and some surprisingly poignant ones – specifically the result of Peter challenging the wannabe actor Ethan to a few character exercises with the intent to humiliate him. Nothing so heartfelt has ever happened in a dirty rest stop bathroom before.
Unfortunately, even though the leads are consistently winning each other back, there is an uneasiness that pervades the entire film. Part of that has to do with a lack of music during the scenes of dialog (there’s simply nothing there to dilute the things that are being said), but the root cause of it is the despicable nature of both men – one, a self-involved rage-a-holic who believes he’s important because he wears a suit and the other, a sycophantic social train wreck who is still crushed from the death of his father (who may be the only human that ever really cared about him).
The unease created by two strong performances and an unflinching script is too much of a hurdle to leap over comedically at least half of the time. Situations and lines that are clearly meant to diffuse tension or cause a laugh convince with varying success. In those failures, the lines get stuck in the mire of the dark tone and can’t break through to cause any laughter.
Over all, the film is a long, strange trip that sees two characters teeter on the edge of cruelty in an attempt to see how far they can go without falling off the balance beam of comedy. Sometimes they stick the dismount to hilarious effect. Sometimes they fall off the cliff without a safety net. In the end, it’s the equivalent of watching Planes, Trains, and Automobiles in a bad mood.
The Upside: Downey Jr and Galifianakis make a great duo, the film takes chances, and when the comedy works, it works insanely well.
The Downside: Those chances are great, but when the gamble doesn’t pay off, there’s nothing funny about it.
On the Side: Mel Gibson was never scheduled to appear in this movie.