It’s truly amazing what a talented actor can do with a mediocre script. In this case, I’m not just talking about Robert Downey, Jr. At this point, everyone expects him to nail every role he takes on. He could play Nomi Malone in a shot-for-shot remake of “Showgirls” and still find some emotional complexity in the character. I’m also referring to Zach Galifianakis. I’m just gonna say it. The dude is underrated. Seriously. Bear with me on this. Yes, he’s primarily known for “being weird” and letting his body be (sometimes literally) the butt of the joke. And some people love him for that alone. But underneath his comedic social ineptitude lurks a sea of pathos. Sometimes it’s buried pretty deep. So in “Due Date”, when it pokes its head out and waves hello, it’s a thing of beauty. It also makes what would have otherwise been a pretty forgettable film into a repeat-viewer.
Boiled down, “Due Date” is a worst-case scenario of what would happen if you ended up on the wrong side of the T.S.A. Robert Downey, Jr. plays Peter Highman (the script is mercifully light on jokes about his surname), an architect with anger-management issues and a father-to-be. He meets an eccentric aspiring actor named Ethan Tremblay (Zach Galifianakis) through an inadvertent bag switch at the Atlanta airport. Reunited in first class, the two of them accidentally talk their way onto the “No-Fly” list. This is terrible news for Peter who only has a few days to get to Los Angeles so he can witness the scheduled C-section of his first-born child. Ethan, whose dream is to land a role on “Two and a Half Men,” is also L.A. bound. With his wallet still on the plane, Peter seemingly has no choice but to accept a ride from the man largely responsible for his predicament.
If this plot sounds familiar, it’s probably because you’ve seen “Planes, Trains and Automobiles.” Similarities aside, this isn’t an unofficial remake. While Steve Martin’s character represents the Everyman in an absurd situation, R.D.J.s Peter is just as crazy as the man he’s traveling with, albeit in a more socially acceptable way. Ethan is unstable in pretty unconventional ways, made moreso by the recent passing of his father. He carries his father’s ashes in a coffee can intending to find the perfect spot to scatter them on his way to Hollywood. That’s a pretty solemn plot point for a mainstream comedy.
As the trailer suggests, “Due Date” is largely vehicle destruction, comedic violence, masturbation humor, pot jokes and “oh-no-he-didn’t” moments. But R.D.J. and Galifianakis add an undercurrent of loneliness and daddy issues that brings the film to a new level. Since Peter’s father bailed on him when he was a kid, he’s determined to be there for his child from Day One. He’s also terrified of the prospect of fatherhood. Ethan’s father loved him, but he was probably the only person in the whole world who did. Though he is generally a happy-go-lucky person, Ethan has definitely not yet come to terms with his loss. When he finally finds a spot to sprinkle his father’s ashes, he eulogizes, “Dad, you were like a father to me.” Obviously, the line is played for laughs, but it feels like there’s more to it. Ethan’s dad was there for him. Peter’s was not. Not all dads are like fathers to their children. Whether or not this was the intended reading of the line, it comes across that way because of the caliber of talent involved. If only every mainstream comedy were cast this way. Imagine Phillip Seymour Hoffman as “The Hot Chick”! Cate Blanchette as “The House Bunny”! Gary Oldman and David Thewlis in “Wedding Crashers”! That’s the world I someday hope to live in.
Many people are calling “Due Date” the placeholder between “The Hangover” and “The Hangover 2,” but it’s just as good, if not better, than the former. The quality of the latter remains to be seen, but I can count on two hands the number of sequels that were as good as the original. While Todd Phillips isn’t exactly (“Mad Men” creator) Matthew Weiner in the dramatic subtlety department, he’s made a movie with a lot more heart than “The Hangover” and a lot more depth than the John Hughes film it vaguely resembles. Not bad for a placeholder.