Directed by Todd Phillips
If Todd Phillips has matured as a comic filmmaker—and that's by no means a certainty—it could be marked by his choice of unofficial source material. Last year's bros-will-be-bros smash The Hangover essentially remake Dude, Where's My Car?, while his new buddy comedy Due Date revisits the comparably classier Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. Robert Downey Jr. plays the Steve Martin role, the uptight straight man desperate to get home, in this case to his pregnant wife; Zach Galifianakis inherits the John Candy position of unlikely, slobbier travel buddy, and also more or less reprises his Hangover character: a slacker-stoner with a child's dual enthusiasm and petulance.
Performing in big tentpole movies, Downey has a way of appearing antsy and impatient around just about anyone, so Galifianakis, playing a genuine irritant, sends him into slow-burn overdrive. Downey doesn't get many funny lines—he's often too apoplectic to crack wise, and, for that matter, Phillips is often too lazy to write good wisecracks—but his curdled incredulousness is a treat. Phillips throws in a few funny side characters, like Danny McBride's belligerent Western Union employee, but most of Due Date proceeds as an agreeable double act.
Intentionally or not, this simplicity defuses the misogyny of The Hangover; neither character, no matter how unpleasant, appears afraid of women, which unfortunately counts as progress. Michelle Monaghan, playing Downey's pregnant wife, gets sequestered in bed for just about the entire movie, but she's not written as a harpy, though her lack of any personality, let alone comedy (especially after her work with Downey in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang), showcases Phillips' bizarre, inexplicable belief that Juliette Lewis—on hand here as a genial drug dealer—is the only funny woman in Hollywood.
Phillips still doesn't know how to build comic tension and provide payoff, so much of Due Date plays like the same ten or fifteen minutes on repeat: Galifianakis saying or doing something ridiculous or stupid and Downey getting annoyed, then showing remorse when Galifianakis appears particularly sad or pathetic, sometimes chased with a big piece of life-endangering slapstick. By the end, Downey's mixture of annoyance and affection comes off as downright arbitrary, which fits with that Old School/Hangover aesthetic: Phillips is known for crafting memorable comic set pieces, but he actually just engineers scenes where memorable stuff happens for no real reason and with little effect on the rest of the movie. He hasn't learned to subvert a traditional comic narrative with absurdist improvisation (like Adam McKay) or dialogue-heavy semi-naturalism (like Judd Apatow).
Without too many distracting sideshows, though, Due Date, like his Starsky & Hutch (though not nearly as funny), suffers less from structural sloppiness. Despite the auto-non-sequitur-generator nature of the Galifianakis persona and the requisite collection of tics (he talks about getting a perm! He minces like a drag queen when he walks! He falls asleep driving!), his Ethan is a somewhat fuller, better-realized character than his Hangover weirdo, and the movie doesn't push Downey too hard into a stock-screenplay arc; Galifianakis doesn't teach him to be a better person so much as tease out his tolerance levels a bit. Maybe Phillips is getting more mature, and more subtle in his filmmaking—or maybe he's just finding new, more sophisticated ways of half-assing it.