There are two ways to address a familiar film plot. The easy route, of course, is to dismiss it as recycled fluff, reciting the similarities to its predecessors. The more discerning course is to give the newcomer a chance to prove itself as a creative variation on the theme. That’s how you can give Due Date its due. In the first few minutes, you’ll notice the script verges on carbon-copying Trains, Planes and Automobiles, the 1987 John Hughes hit about two utterly mismatched men on a comically catastrophic cross-country road trip.
Check the parallels: One of the guys is an uptight, super-straight, slightly pompous type who has a powerful reason to get home by a certain time. In the original, it’s Steve Martin struggling to make it for Thanksgiving. In the update, we get Robert Downey Jr. , desperate to witness the imminent birth of his first child. Each man’s plans are shattered by a walking disaster – a free-spirited jinx whose apparent sincerity is overshadowed by an uncanny ability to turn any given situation into pain, inconvenience and humiliation.
Instead of John Candy as the not-quite charming goofball, we get Zach Galifianakis as the apparently clueless maker of messes. In both movies, the “adult” half of the distressed odd couple does a series of slow burns while the juvenile-minded partner he never wanted creates mayhem at every stage of the script. And so, it’s no surprise when they follow the format and gradually shift places on the wisdom curve, with the stuffed shirt learning to relax a little and the clownish dude turning out to be less idiotic than we thought.
Director Todd Phillips has a knack for these rude, risqué buddy comedies. His successes included Road Trip, Old School, and The Hangover. (Yes, he’s helming The Hangover Part II.) The essential ingredients don’t change much. Awkward situations, disgraceful misunderstandings and edgy animals are standard. And funny, darn it. Phillips chooses actors who make us laugh even when we have a pretty good idea what’s coming.
Downey and Galifianakis are fine cases in point. Both are consummate improvisers (remember Downey even did a stint on Saturday Night Live), reacting to absurdities with just the right comic shading. Downey’s harrumphing businessman is quickly put in his place by a series of screw-ups, most of which he helps aggravate with his insulting attitudes. His name is Peter Highman, but it could just as well be High-hat by the way he talks down to folks. Galifianakis plays Ethan, a sloppy, dope-addled misfit who always has an explanation for his latest misstep. Indeed, his insanely self-involved chatter is as funny as the misery he creates for his unwilling companion.
How do they get stuck together? Well, first off, Ethan gets himself and Peter kicked off a flight from Atlanta to Los Angeles. The no-fly rule is invoked, and their attempts to get a train or bus ride are sabotaged in ways that give Peter mental anguish and physical damage beyond the scope of routine road-comedy experience. You want empathy? Imagine having dope in the car when your lunatic driver accidentally pulls up to a U.S.-Mexico border crossing.
The interplay between the two stars sparkles. It’s hard to tell where the screenwriters leave off and the improv kicks in, but these guys know how to keep it lively.
Guest stars contribute massive laughs in short bits. Danny McBride is outrageous as a surly stationmaster, Jamie Foxx adds humorous pop philosophy as Peter’s friend who gives them a lift, RZA has a cute bit as a baggage inspector, and Juliette Lewis lights it up as a suburban pot dealer. Yes, kids, there is a sequence involving hallucinations. But the R rating is for more extreme reasons, mainly the TMI that passes for conversation.
And just when you figure there’s no escape from a routine ending, we get a kicker that’s especially timely in light of current entertainment news. Not to reveal too much, let’s just say that Ethan tells us early on that his all-time favorite TV show is
Two and a Half Men.
The 1080p high-def presentation has a 2:35:1 aspect ratio, presented in
AVC/Mpeg-4, at a bit rate that varies between 15 and 25 Mpbs. Lawrence Sher’s cinematography – serviceable if not stunning – gets good play on the Blu-Ray format. Night scenes are a little contrasty – I guess you don’t need background detail at a gas station – but the scenic elements are dandy. The Grand Canyon sequence is prettier than you’d expect in a raucous comedy, and the daylight colors reflect the story’s brighter aspects. In a film that relies heavily on close-ups and reactions, the details are perfectly preserved. Every scowl by Peter, every hair on Ethan’s beard, every wrinkle on Sonny the dog’s face shows up to enhance your giggling experience.
The English soundtrack is DTS HD Master Audio 5.1 at 48 KHz. The surround mix is suitable, not showy. Dialog is reasonably crisp, and the well-chosen soundtrack tunes are bright but not overpowering.
Extended scene: The leadoff extra is the cutest. It’s a 3:02 extension of the movie’s final scene. As we said above, it’s remarkably timely and maybe a tad poignant under the circumstances.
Deleted scenes (3:55). Three of them, including a 2:42 riff on fan sites and Ethan’s favorite show, a 30-second bit from the diner and another half-minute cut from a car scene. No big whoop.
Gag reel (6:31). The bloopers are amusing enough, but the most fun is watching the two stars crack each other up. Because neither character laughs much during the film, it’s a hoot to watch them reduce each other to helpless jelly.
Too many questions. It’s a 41-second montage of silly questions. Nothing to it.
Action mash-up. 30 seconds of crashes, kicks and smacks. Maybe intended as a teaser trailer at some point.
Entering with low expectations and a fondness for the two lead players, we found Due Date to be surprisingly funny despite its adherence to well-worn comic conventions. Downey and Galifianakis make a formidable team, playing beautifully off of each other’s strengths. We’d love to see them try something else together any time.