Due Date begins with a surreal mini-monologue in which Peter Highman (Robert Downey Jr.) tells his pregnant wife (Michelle Monaghan) over the phone about a dream he has in which his wife is delivering her child in a stream, and because he can’t get to her in time a grizzly bear does the job for him, severing the umbilical cord with his teeth. The scene is at once somewhat funny, a little scary and deeply off-putting, which makes it a good microcosm of what Due Date turns out to be as a whole.
After a series of misunderstandings, rushed through to the point of near-incoherence, Peter ends up stranded in Atlanta, having to bum a ride to California to reach his very pregnant wife before her C-section. The man who caused him to get shot, Ethan Tremblay (Zach Galifinakis) is a quirk-riddled mess of a man that could only exist in a mainstream comedy; imagine John Candy in Planes, Trains and Automobiles (a film this one desperately wants to emulate) but twice as obnoxious and exponentially more dangerous. Just in the first 40 minutes, Ethan subjects Peter to the worst night of front-seat sleep in history, a drug transaction and a violent assault by a handicapped currency exchange employee (Danny McBride); that’s to say nothing of the destructive escape from Mexico, the bitter scuffle atop the Grand Canyon or their massive car crash on the highway. Seriously, there haven’t been this many flipped vehicles in a movie since The Dark Knight.
For essentially being director Todd Phillips’ placeholder between Hangover movies, Due Date works at a few points, but largely falls flat. The screenplay feels unpolished; the pacing is far too rapid at the beginning and gets leaden later on. This feels throughout like a film that was shoved with a strong arm into production. Much like The Hangover, this film succumbs to the inexplicable big-budget comedy need to feature huge action setpieces for laughs rather than clever dialogue. It also doesn’t help that Downey plays Peter as a misanthrope of the highest order, an upper middle class prick with a rage problem who’s a chore to try and care about. By halfway in, rather than laughing at Peter’s being embattled, we’re cheering Ethan on to wreak havoc on his life. Downey’s neurotic side as it appeared in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang would have fit in perfectly here; rather, we get an acerbic overdose. That said, there’s not another actor in Hollywood that could make punching a small boy in the stomach as hilarious as Downey does.
Downey’s cause isn’t helped by the fact that for the second time in two years, Galifinakis absolutely runs away with Phillips’ film. Even by odd couple road movie logic, Ethan is abusive, both emotionally and physically, and there’s not an actor better suited to give vulnerability to such a man than Galifinakis. He pulls off the high-wire act of being creepy while sweet, unhinged and as loyal as a pet all at once, and nearly all of the film’s funniest lines are attributed to his mastery of off-the-cuff delivery. It’s a shame that Due Date as a film can’t rise to meet him. In fact, for much of the running time the film asks that we empathize with Peter and laugh at Ethan, which is a trick because the circuit of empathy runs in the exact opposite direction. Phillips goes to great lengths to avoid the clichés of the road-trip bonding picture, but in the process ends up stilting his own film, and by the time the two inevitably connect, nothing’s really at stake. Due Date, sadly, is another entry in the recent line of inherently bad comedies elevated to a level of entertainment they don’t earn by actors they don’t deserve.