I finally got around to seeing Due Date, the road trip comedy starring Robert Downey Jr. and Zach Galifianakis. All the while I was watching the movie, I kept thinking of two other films – Planes, Trains and Automobiles and The Hangover. Like Planes, Trains and Automobiles, Due Date is about a cross-country trip involving an incompatible odd couple who are thrust together on account of some unfortunate circumstances and bad luck. And like The Hangover, the film stars Zach Galifianakis as Alan Garner, only this time, his name is Ethan Tremblay.
There was nothing really authentic about the film. I cannot discount its outrageous moments and funny scenarios that provide enough laughs to warrant watching it. However, for me, watching the film was more an exercise in trying not to compare it to the two other, better films it so closely resembles.Where I think Due Date falls short is with its characters and their relationships. I'm a Robert Downey Jr. fan and I've laughed out loud watching Zach Galifianakis in other comedic roles. Together, I expected a stellar comedy mash-up, but instead I was disappointed by the pairing. As Ethan, Galifianakis simply channels Alan from The Hangover. Ethan is obnoxious, yearning to be liked, socially awkward and quirky just like Alan, but without the endearing childlike cluelessness that makes Alan likeable and worth rooting for. Ethan is gratingly irritating, and you get the sense all along that he knows exactly what he's up to. The similarities between the characters made it difficult for me to see Ethan as authentic and honest rather than as a mere lesser copy of a character that Galifianakis already portrayed but better.
Ethan's road trip companion, Peter (Robert Downey Jr.), is a hostile, mean-spirited ticking time bomb whom I sympathized with in part given his circumstances and what he had to deal with while traveling with Ethan. At other times, however, his brutality seemed misplaced - like when he punched a pre-pubescent kid in the stomach for his bratty behaviour. This and other transgressions by Peter didn't really translate into laughs even of the dark humour variety. It helps to feel a sense of affection for the characters in a comedy, but I found it hard to feel anything for these characters because so few redeeming qualities shone through.
In comparison, Steve Martin and John Candy infused their characters in Planes, Trains and Automobiles with naturalness and heart. Del (John Candy) won my heart when he sat hurt and saddened after Neal (Steve Martin) exploded, telling Del that his jokes stunk, and that he was a dull gasbag. Del’s face saddens and he simply says “Oh, I see,” and this moment shows such truth in Candy’s performance and Martin plays to it so effectively and believably. John Hughes who wrote, directed and produced the film did what he did best as a filmmaker – he produced a real story with clearly defined characters with an underlying theme of empathy and understanding at the heart of it. The character development works wonderfully in the film as it’s clear who Del and Neal are. Del is a gregarious man who simply wants to please and tries his hardest no matter what, and Neal is an aloof, judgmental man who simply wants to be left alone.
In the end, the film delivers a moment of real poignancy as Neal experiences a realization that transforms the way he thinks and feels. He realizes that, like Del, he's also rather lonely and that he shouldn't judge others by first appearances or by his own high standards. The film contains moments of real emotion amidst the hilarity and the combination makes for a truly great film. Due Date suffers because it tells the same kind of story, but without the same heart and without central characters with heart.