Silver Screen: Due Date ***1/2
Speaking of movies that may seem familiar, it's tough not to think of Due Date as Planes, Trains, and Automobiles Part II. Here, too, the plots are nearly identical: A high-strung businessman eager to get back to a big family event is forced to partner up with a troublesome goofball on a zany cross-country trip. Undeniably, Due Date never really breaks out of the mold John Hughes established back in 1987, but it's to the credit of director Todd Phillips that the new movie, like its predecessor, packs a surprising emotional punch. There's nothing in Phillips's movie that compares to the twist of the knife at the end of Planes, Trains, when viewers learn John Candy's sad secret, but Due Date thrives in its quieter moments and gradually transitions its protagonists from comedy caricatures to sympathetic characters.
If you're casting a smug, callow businessman-type, you can't do much better than Robert Downey Jr., who exudes smarm and charm from the opening frame. He's Peter, a type-A asshole whose understanding wife (Michelle Monaghan) is days away from a scheduled C-section delivery. He's on a flight from Atlanta to Los Angeles when he gets into an altercation with bearded, permed nut Ethan (Zach Galifianakis). Peter's hot-tempered reaction to Ethan's cluelessness gets them both thrown off the plane, but not before Peter is shot with a rubber bullet by an air marshal and mercilessly mocked by airport staff (including RZA and Matt Walsh).
Having lost his wallet and I.D., Peter is left with no choice but to tag along with the eternally positive Ethan, who is traveling to L.A. to become a TV star. Specifically, Ethan wants to be on Two and a Half Men; he already runs the unofficial fansite, ItsRainingTwoAndAHalfMen.com.
What follows is, in terms of plot points, a fairly predictable series of mishaps. There's some mistaken identity, some inadvertent lawbreaking, some very intentional lawbreaking, and enough chases and car crashes to register a ten on the Blues Brothers Automotive Destruction Meter. The characters they meet along the way range from stock weirdos (Juliette Lewis as a pot-dealing deadbeat mom, Danny McBride as an aggressive paraplegic) to just plain weird diversions (Jamie Foxx as Peter's best friend, a professional football player who may or may not be trying to steal his wife).
Even when the antics themselves threaten to grow tiresome, though, the interplay between Peter and Ethan-- not to mention the movie's delightfully brisk pace-- helps the movie glide over rough patches. Despite its frequent forays into outrageousness, Due Date truly excels when it focuses more on character-based comedy. None of the big stunts in the movie are as funny as Ethan and Peter spending the night together outside a rainy rest stop, sharing their family histories and, in Ethan's case, using an awkward sleep aid. For most mainstream comedies, serious emotion is a brief but inevitable detour from the jokes, but here the best gags come intertwined with the more serious elements of the movie.
Unquestionably, though, what sets Due Date apart from other buddy road comedies is its stars. Downey and Galifianakis make a perfect pair. The former is the only actor alive who can make child abuse hilarious (which he does) and keep us rooting for him even at his worst. Not only does Downey never attempt to soften the character, he seems determined to make him as angry as possible, as though the rage we see is just a fraction of his inner loathing. Galifianakis is, for my money, the world's best weirdo right now, perhaps usurping the title from Will Ferrell. He's all at once effeminate, lewd, innocent, lawless, guileless, and conniving. Like Downey, he consistently ups the ante on his character's unlikeability, rightly confident he can always win back the audience.
This is funny stuff. Even when Due Date goes nowhere-- or exactly where you think it will-- it's a great trip.