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Non-Review Review: Due Date

I have to admit that I quite enjoyed Due Date. It’s a straight-forward comedy road movie – nothing more, nothing less. It’s the standard template: two unlikely comrades find themselves embarking on a cross-country journey where they learn a lot about each other and themselves. As such, Due Date is the younger sibling of films like Trains, Planes and Automobiles or Midnight Run – it’s also a genre which hasn’t, to be honest, been played entirely straight in quite some time. Sure, there have been variations on theme – Little Miss Sunshine, for example, played the road movie with far more subversive comedy; Get Him to the Greek was this concept with rock stars. As such, perhaps the simplicity of Due Date is part of the appeal – it’s a tried and tested formula, so why tinker with it?

What does Robert Downey Jr. bring to the table?

The plot, as the title implies, follows two very different individuals making a trip to Los Angeles. Ethan is an aspiring actor looking for some emotional closure and a chance to appear in Two and a Half Men. Peter just wants to make it back to his wife in time for the birth of his child. Both essentially embody the “overgrown manchild” archetype that has become increasing common in modern comedies. Ethan repeatedly claims to be “only 23”, but has the mental age of a five-year-old (complete with the adept skills at emotional manipulation and inability to take care of himself – “if you’re allergic to waffles, don’t eat them!” Peter has to advise him at one point). Peter is immature and emotionally isolated – communicating over long distance with his wife via voicemail rather than phone conversations. He certainly doesn’t have the patience to become a father. If it sounds like this is an experience that both leads could grow from, you’d be spot-on.

Let’s get this out of the way from the start. Due Date is not as hilarious as The Hangover. While that film came out of nowhere and landed a perfect right hook, Due Date is a much more conventional film built to a different model. While The Hangover did feature occasional moments of action all amid the comedy, Due Date has to balance the comedy with a reasonable amount of drama and some high-octane action. So it isn’t as frequently or consistently hilarious as Todd Phillips’ earlier film, even though there are moments of pure madcap genius to be found in the film.

A lot has been made of the fact that the film is “mean”. I’m not sure that’s a fair criticism. There has definitely been a mean streak running through modern comedy – this is particularly evident in the past decade – but I don’t think that Due Date is any meaner than any other random modern comedy. Sure, Peter and Ethan are jerks towards each other, but the film is never insincere. The movie handles its emotional scenes – particularly the climaxes of both characters’ emotional arcs – in an earnest fashion. Compare, for example, the farewell scene in The Big Lebowski to the one presented here – Due Date asks us to sympathise and invest in the characters, never really mocking either of them. Indeed, Phillips seems to be afraid to undermine the moments like Ethan’s closure – making the movie a lot less subversive or aggressive than it may claim to be.

More than that, although the characters do horrible things to each other – and doing horrible things to each other has been a staple of comedy for the past century at least – the movie makes it clear that the important thing is that both Ethan and Peter ultimately come back when it’s important. They are both deeply flawed characters, but the movie asks its audience to believe that – underneath it all – they are fundamentally good people. That said, the movie does have a hard time getting the balance right sometimes – particularly with Peter.

Nobody can accuse the actors of phoning it in...

Because Ethan is presented to the audience as essentially a child in an adult’s body (with just as much emotional need), Peter’s harsher actions towards him do seem more than a little unfair. That said, as charming as Zach Galifianakis can be, Ethan seems like a person who would be really annoying to be around. Though, to be honest, I have to admire the movie for demonstrating that it isn’t afraid to have Peter be just as much of a jerk (and just as physically aggressive) to an actual child as opposed to an adult with the mental age of a child.

The two leads are charming enough to carry the film even when it slows down – indeed, the movie’s pacing is wildly erratic. Robert Downey Jr. is essentially doing what he did in Iron Man 2, and playing to his media persona. While the portrayal of Tony Stark in the year’s earlier film was that of a  self-destructive modern media mega-star (perhaps reflecting the earlier excess of Downey’s career), here Peter is a man who really needs to accept the responsibilities that he has by taming his own issues and insecurities. I think there’s an element of self-reflection in Peter as played by Robert Downey Jr., another man who has reached a point in his life where he has learned to let go of his own issues.

Zach Galifianakis essentially reprises his role from The Hangover here, just with a bit of added emotional depth. With the release of The Hangover 2 next year, I would honestly worry about being typecast. That said, Ethan is the best part of the film – despite being just as difficult to handle as Peter makes out, Galifianakis makes sure that we never hate him. Maybe it’s because he plays scenes where Ethan emotionally manipulates Peter so well that you can believe Ethan is blissfully unaware of just how manipulative he is being or because we’re thankful that he’s not traveling with us, but he manages to make the character simultaneously incredibly annoying to Peter and strangely endearing to Peter.

Due Date isn’t quite the runaway success that The Hangover was, but it’s a charming enough little film – a homage to those “two guys on the road” movies from about twenty years ago. It’s not as iconic or as smart as those films, but it’s well made and well acted.

4 Responses

  1. Don’t get me wrong, this is relatively amusing and there is worse out there. This movie didn’t to be that crude and “primal” with those two leads. I was expecting something smarter I guess…

    • Yep. It’s not exceptional. I think my standards regarding “crudeness” have just been worn down by release after release after release. Though when I say it like that, I sound like a goddamn puritan.

  2. This film was bad, turned it off after trying and hopeing it would either e funny or have an edge. Not a patch on Trains, Planes….

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