Due Date | Comedy | rated R (A,L) | starring Robert Downey Jr., Zach Galifianakis | directed by Todd Phillips | 1:40 mins

After a misunderstanding at the airport gets Peter Highman (Robert Downey Jr) put on the no-fly list, he seeks a ride with a wanna-be actor, Ethan Tramblay (Zach Galifianakis, Tru Calling – I mean, The Hangover), with a rental car to help him get to his pregnant wife (Michelle Monaghan) in LA before the birth of his child. But Ethan proves a companion both childish and a magnet for distruction sending Peter from one mishap to the next.

One thing I have been able to rely on about a Todd Phillips movie – from Road Trip to the cult classic Old School to the 10 ton comedy dynamo The Hangover – was that they stuck to their light, comic guns instead of turning into heart-string-pulling pathos as so many other comedies do in a bid for legitimacy (Adam Sandler, I’m looking at you). But that’s the problem with Due Date. It forces together two opposite characters who are unlikeable in their own ways and then instead of sticking with the decidely different dynamic and seeing what crazy mixture we can get from it, it wants us to feel for them just as they’re about to go off the deep end and into gleeful comedy chaos. It paints Ethan Tramblay as an almost pathologically disturbed annoying character and then has him well up with tears over being alone or the loss of his father. It has Peter doing a few shocking things to dogs and kids in the name of black-out rage and then has him bonding with Ethan when every cell in his body should say to run. Previous Phillips movies didn’t apologize for their free-for-all comedy. This one wimps out, too afraid of repulsiving the audience to take the road trip movie to different places the sub-genre desperately needs it to.

Due Date is “at a cellular level” a very standard road trip movie. It gets laughs only sporatically soley because of the sheer fortitude with which Downey Jr and Galifianakis fling themselves into these two characters.  They are uniformally terrific, though Galifianakis’ essentially just plays Alan again, an act that grows tiresome and should have been held in reserve until that puzzle piece can be put back into the ensemble of The Hangover 2 where it belongs. Downey Jr. is better. His portrayal of Peter as a man trying desperately to supress serious anger issues just bubbling under the surface is a movie rarity. 

The guys are let down by the standard roster of road trip movie mishaps, misunderstandings, crashes, roadside cameos, and the trip to prison (be it a border crossing trailer) – all of which is deathly uninspired. None of their escapades are particularly memorable including dog and ashes-in-coffee-can bits that could have come from The Big Lebowski or any Farrelly brothers movie. Phillips usually has such an ear for dialog, a knack for comic timing and delivery that it almost requires a double-take to notice him lettting joke after joke slip by and fizzle out before our eyes.

The film’s mean-spirited nature pulls at the broader gags, but the points of male bonding and sentiment pull at the broad gags. I wanted the film to go further in every direction. Either commit to the sentiment and play out the more reliable storyline of Ethan’s childishness making Peter into a more patient and understanding father. Or for it to go completely out on a limb and have Ethan be a true psychopath. Actually, I was waiting for a twist surrounding Ethan’s acting talents that never came.

The movie does work in fits and starts, which is what’s so frustrating about it. I do love my road trip movies to beat up and batter the actors good and Due Date does that with a vengence with our duo barely getting to their destination in one piece. I was all ready to go either way on it had it really delivered in the closing minutes – which is exactly where Due Date flat-out gives up. What it does deliver is an utterly beguiling head-tilter of a closer that ties nothing at all together (but not in a fun, funny way) and hands off the final joke to be delivered literally by the CBS sitcom Two and a Half Men. Really? Todd Phillips is better than that.