As you read reviews this weekend of the new film “Due Date”, one classic comedy from director John Hughes, “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” will be appropriately mentioned in about 90-percent of the film critics’ judgmental thoughts on the current film.
In that 1987 comedy classic starring Steve Martin and John Candy, Martin’s character is bumped from his scheduled flight home for the holidays, and he reluctantly ( and to his deep regret ) accepts the offer of a ride cross-country by a bumbling stranger who causes him no end of troubles and aggravation during their journey.
In the hands of Hughes, the master of 80’s film comedies who sometimes mixed slapstick humor with depth and pathos in a way that was unforgettable, “Planes” elevated itself as more than just a series of gags. It had heart and made you feel good about the film and it’s characters’ journey together. In the capable hands of Martin and Candy; it was, of course, undeniably funny.
It also made you actually care about the characters’ growing relationship from reluctant companions to true friends.
Fast forward now to director Todd Phillips’ latest effort, “Due Date” which stars Robert Downey Jr. and current “go-to” film comedy actor Zack Galifianakis. It might be overstating it to suggest Phillips is ripping off the vastly superior Hughes’ film concept. However, Phillips sure comes close to it.
Generously stated, Phillips, perhaps unknowingly, has taken the basic premise of Hughes’ film and made “Due Date” darker, weirder, grosser and a more crass “bromance” film. In other words, Phillips has recycled it with elements of Judd Apatow’s raunchy films and Phillips own hit, “The Hangover”, which also starred Galifianakis.
Unfortunately, Phillips lacks Hughes deft touch in mixing humor with heart.
In “Due Date”, Downey portrays a dour, high-strung, and fairly unpleasant architect named Peter Highman.
Yes, Peter Highman. Think about it.
Subtlety is not a virtue in these kinds of films.
Highman is trying to catch a flight home to be at his wife Sarah’s ( Michelle Monaghan) side, who’s due to give birth via Caesarian section in days. Unfortunately, Highman crosses paths almost immediately at the airport with Ethan Tremblay ( Galifianakis ) an effete, unusual, disheveled and somewhat arrogant dweeb, sporting a perm and carrying his French bulldog in his arms.
From the beginning, we see where this low-brow odd coupling is headed. Tremblay immediately causes problems for Downey’s character… from the airport curbside where he knocks over Highman’s bags, leading to significant problems later with the cliched luggage mix-up.
Once the two board the plane in Atlanta for Los Angeles, problems continue to ensue once Tremblay happens to be bumped from coach to a seat right behind Highman in first-class. Some uncomfortable moments later, including Ethan’s hairy beer-belly being shoved into Peter’s face, their meeting leads to some ill-chosen and careless words that get both of them bumped off the plane by airport security and placed on a no-fly list.
Peter, who thinks he’s lost his wallet, ID and money, as well as his luggage still on the plane, is stranded, frustrated and angry. Still, despite this incident and all that has transpired before, Peter reluctantly accepts an offer from Ethan to ride cross-country together in a rental car.
As we, and Peter, soon discover, Ethan is weird.
He’s a self-absorbed, socially inept misfit with dreams of traveling to Hollywood ( not, Los Angeles, Hollywood ) to become an actor with his lofty inspiration for the dramatic arts being his love and devotion for the TV show “Two and a Half Men”. To make matters even weirder, Ethan is traveling across the country with his recently deceased and cremated father’s ashes in a coffee tin.
As the two travel across the country, Ethan’s annoying ways, of which there are many, grate increasingly on an growingly annoyed Peter. From Ethan’s pot-smoking for alleged glaucoma to sight gags of both Ethan, and unbelievably his dog, self-gratifying themselves in the car; the endless stream of low-brow humor threatens to test the patience of both Peter and the filmgoing audience.
At one point, Ethan’s behavior pushes Peter to the point of abandoning him in the middle of nowhere, only to return reluctantly; not so much out of sincere guilt for Ethan, but more so, because Peter realizes his crude traveling partner’s father’s ashes are still in the car.
Despite the film’s multiple shortcomings, misfires and sheer stupidity, it’s Downey who reliably provides some of the film’s few funny moments. Downey’s character isn’t a perfect guy either, and his dark side begins to show more and more as his patience wears thinner and thinner.
Several scenes highlight Downey’s effective sarcastic delivery making for some smart moments in the film. When Downey has to deny to some police authorities that Ethan’s pot isn’t his, saying “I’ve never done drugs in my life”… Downey’s well-documented real-life drug struggles give the scene some fun irony and a knowing self-deprecating nod to the audience.
Downey also provides a few priceless, unexpected and truly politically incorrect sight gags that give his character some edge as he begins to emotionally unravel at Ethan and the problems he causes. Whether spitting in Ethan’s beloved dog’s face or socking a truly deserving bratty kid square in the gut, Downey brings this film it’s few bright spots.
However, despite this, Downey isn’t able to overcome the film’s numerous other cringe-worthy attempts at humor, most of which are provided by Galifianakis.
Director Phillips tries to make the audience care about, and believe that Ethan has some redeeming qualities. However, attempts that include Ethan tearfully missing his now deceased father hardly counteract earlier images of him non-chalantly propping his feet up on the dashboard, while he pleasures himself to sleep.
Also, a sequence involving a car crash stretches even most generous of belief suspension, when Ethan and Peter’s vehicle careens off a highway overpass and lands flat on it’s roof crushing the car, pancake-style. Yet, Ethan escapes injury because he “went limp” from falling asleep; while Peter only gets a broken arm, some cracked ribs and stitches.
Throw in another sequence that also throws even more credibility to the wind, involving a wild car-crashing escape from Mexican authorities after a mistaken trip across the border with no apparent international repercussions, and you’re left with a film that seems to expect the audience to accept any ludicrous situation that’s thrown it’s way.
Whether it’s cliched scenes depicting Ethan being bounced around the flatbed portion of a pick-up truck when Peter’s close friend ( played by Jamie Foxx ) gives them a lift; or another scene involving a classic comedic “spit-take” when Ethan’s coffee-canned father gets mistaken for something else worth brewing
… “Due Date” is a film that reaches it’s expiration date on genuine humor far too soon.
See more of Tim Estiloz’ reviews and videos at: www.TimEstiloz.com