An uptight thin bloke and a messy fat bloke travel across America, encountering an array of disasters on their way back to see thin bloke’s wife.
John Hughes’ 1987 comedy Planes, Trains And Automobiles was a blend of bromance, odd-couple comedy and road movie, a warm, smart star vehicle juggling gross-out gags with slapstick, rapid-fire scripting with sweetness and poignancy…
So too Due Date. Todd Phillips’ latest cleaves close to Hughes’ template, from stolen wallets to obstructive desk clerks, car mishaps to awkward sleeping arrangements. Swap Steve Martin for Robert Downey Jr, John Candy for Zach Galifianakis, a dead wife for a dead dad and Thanksgiving for an imminent birth and you’re there. Not huge on originality, then.
Yet Due Date is a sparkling spin around the old block, boasting ace leads, eye-snagging cameos, spit-your-popcorn laughs and a more marked tenderness than Phillips’ all-conquering mega-hit, The Hangover.
Downey Jr plays Peter Highman, an uptight architect with a bad temper travelling back from Atlanta to wife Christine (Michelle Monaghan) in LA for the arrival of his first sprog.
But the airport brings a meet-cute (mate-cute?) with hairy nightmare Ethan Tremblay (Galifianakis), a saucer-eyed nincompoop with a ‘photogenic memory’ who is heading to Hollywood to become an actor.
Ethan’s inspiration? The second series of Two And A Half Men. He knocks the door off Peter’s cab, pinches his bag, gets him tasered and lands them both on the ‘no-fly’ list.
With no luggage, money or ID, Peter is forced to accept Ethan’s offer to share his hire car in a long, painful journey cross country. Due Date follows a formula map, but it’s also prone to going off piste.
Phillips loves to blindside, whether it’s with broken taboos (The Hangover’s ‘wanking baby’ gets a worthy sequel here), bizarre asides or precision slapstick (Ethan trapped under the car door – more amusing than it sounds).
Jumps, shocks, surprises, u-turns (physical and emotional) come full-steam at the audience. These curveballs fly with less force in a short second-half dip, where the endless disasters threaten to run dry of invention: a misadventure at the Mexican border feels like excess baggage.
But make no mistake: Due Date is very, very funny. It’s not content with just being a gag machine, either. Emboldened by The Hangover’s success, Phillips extends his aim, reaching for hitherto unexplored depths of poignancy.
Proving that he can turn tone on a dime, the director pulls tear-tugging moments out of thin air.
In one scene, an impromptu ‘acting lesson’ brings choking memories of personal loss to the surface. In another, a quiet goodbye slides from absurdist to affecting, with Neil Young deployed on the soundtrack at the perfect moment.
Character development, though, is uneven. Where Peter seems like he’s gained wisdom at the finish line, Ethan never gains any such self awareness. He has no real arc, remaining as blindly optimistic and clueless as we find him at the start.
And though the coda suggests his stoned naivety has in some sense paid off, it’s not a wholly satisfying wrap-up.
The last third cries out for an equivalent to John Candy’s “You wanna hurt me?” outburst in PTAA; without it, our bromance doesn’t feel quite consummated and Ethan could be judged a caricature.
A vivid caricature mind you, not to be forgotten in any kind of hurry. Galifianakis never misses a beat or overplays, whether blithely indulging his favourite nocturnal activity in front of Downey Jr or putting a subtle mince in his step (his sexuality remains shadowy throughout).
Matching his Hangover man-child chuckle for chuckle, kink for kink, you could argue that Due Date is Galifianakis’ show. But Downey Jr is hardly reduced to wingman here, hooking attention from the off with some wistful pillow talk. A twitchy, snappy portrait of expectant fatherhood, he’s Tony Stark at the end of his tether.
But it’s a measure of RDJ’s atomic magnetism that when he lashes out in two of the film’s most outrageous gambits, audiences will forgive him instantly – and sunder their sides doing so.
Garnishing the leads’ bickering chemistry is a rich spree of bit-parts: Jamie Foxx playing straight and smooth as Downey Jr’s buddy, Danny McBride’s not-to-bemessed- with war vet and Todd Phillips himself, dropping by as boyfriend to Juliette Lewis’ spaced-out ‘pharmacist’.
Phillips the actor acquits himself fine; Phillips the director follows up the highest-grossing R-rated comedy of all time with confidence and purpose.
Getting to grips with birth and death, it’s his most mature movie to date, without growing out of the infantile kicks that have defined his previous work.
Sharp, touching and hilarious: somewhere, the ghost of John Hughes is grinning.