‘Due Date’s’ Dark Daze

For those of us who are either old enough to remember or smart enough to watch pre-2000 movies, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles will always be the end all for road trip comedies. Copycats have crept up over the years, doing their best imitations of Steve Martin and John Candy, but none can truly compare to the duo’s dynamite depiction of dysfunction. Director Todd Phillips has even tried his hand at this formula once before with his first feature film, 2000’s college comedy Road Trip (a crude, yet oddly enjoyable cross-country travel picture).

Still, nothing I have seen comes as close to a straight-up remake of Planes, Trains, and Automobiles as Due Date. Based around the simple (and familiar) premise of Peter Highman (Robert Downey Jr.) trying to make it home before the birth of his first child, Phillips’ latest could have been another remake given the title of a well-known past hit in order to squeeze a few extra dollars out of moviegoers’ pockets. Instead, it has its own name and even its own voice despite the surprising number of similarities it shares with Planes, Trains and Automobiles.

1) Both films are based around two strangers meeting and needing each other for long distance travel.

2) Various modes of transportation are employed during the film.

3) The duo is an odd couple with clashing personalities.

4) One is the tightly wound protagonist (Martin/Downey Jr.).

5) One is the mellow, go with the flow antagonist-turned-protagonist (Candy/Galifianakis).

6) Lying, trickery, and backstabbing occur more than one might expect in a “buddy” comedy.

7) The tightly wound character just wants to get home to his family.

8) The mellow character just wants a friend.

9) Both misadventures begin with a luggage mishap.

10) The uptight protagonist is almost constantly antagonizing the slow-witted sidekick.

The list could go on a bit longer with a few stretches here and there (both Martin and Downey Jr. wear suits, for example), but I think these ten solid similarities are enough, especially considering I’m trying to craft a mostly positive review here. Though it’s a bit more common to bitch and moan about how unoriginal Hollywood has become after an introduction such as this, I can’t help but see the good in the two films’ commonalities. Maybe it’s an homage, maybe not, but Due Date succeeds in updating and energizing all the key ingredients of the best road movie.

Let’s take it step by step.

1) Downey Jr.’s Peter does not regard Galifianakis’ Ethan as merely a stranger. He unapologetically loathes him from the second they lock eyes. Candy’s Del annoyed Martin’s Neal after a series of clumsy mistakes by the former. Eventually he was incomparably annoyed, but he never truly despised Del. In Due Date, Ethan’s life is in almost constant jeopardy simply because of Peter’s pissed-off presence. – ENERGY

2) Due Date never uses a train. Though still an option in America, very few people would choose to take a train from Atlanta to L.A. if planes or cars were an option. Peter and Ethan try flying and about three different cars, but the filmmakers chose not to elongate the film with a train ride. – UPDATE

3-5) If Neal and Del are oil and water in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, Peter and Ethan are like acid on a stuffed animal. Todd Phillips’ and the rest of his writing staff have elevated the stakes for each character simply by raising Peter’s testosterone levels to just below the sociopathic level. While Ethan is your quirky, annoying, and sometimes slow-witted sidekick, he rarely steps far enough over the line to deserve the attacks he gets.

They’re honest mistakes (save a couple), but Peter cannot handle them. He actually off-handedly mentions how he’s aware of his rage problems and is trying to deal with them, but it’s usually only after he bashes Ethan’s face into a rearview mirror. Making the protagonist of a major Hollywood production a massive jerk is a very ballsy, unconventional move. Luckily for all involved, it works. – ENERGY

6) The theme in Due Date isn’t so much that the duo trick each other, but that Peter repeatedly lies to Ethan. It’s simply astounding the level of debasement Downey Jr. takes his character to and still manages to be likable. – UPDATE

7) Though Thanksgiving is an important American holiday (what defines our country more than overeating and watching football?), it lacks the urgency of making it home in time to see your first born emerge from the womb. – UPDATE

8) Del (spoiler alert) faced recent tragedy when he first ran into Neal in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, leaving him alone for the holidays. Ethan did as well, but it seems as though he never really had a friend whereas Del certainly did at one point. Ethan’s complete acceptance of Peter’s faults (and there are many) is almost a fault in itself. I’m sure some audience members urged Ethan to abandon Peter and carry his positive attitude forward unscathed. – ENERGY

9) Del leaves his trunk in Neal’s way by accident, but Ethan ad Peter’s bag switch is never really depicted as accidental or intentional. If Ethan did it on purpose (as he had reason to considering the drugs in his bag), it would change his character from naïve to conniving. I think he’s just that dumb. – UPDATE

10) Watching Steve Martin flip out is one of American cinema’s most cherished opportunities. He has a way about him that makes each outburst similarly entertaining but simultaneously unique. He never has to cross over to the physical aspects of an emotional tirade. Robert Downey Jr. is not really a comedian. Though quite funny, he is primarily a charmer. So what does he do when playing an uncaring jerk? He beats the hell out of Zach Galifianakis. Actually, he lashes out at more than just Ethan in Due Date, but saying more would ruin some of the fun. – ENERGY

If you find some or all of these elements to be turn-offs, I completely understand. Due Date, despite its blockbuster pedigree, is not made for everyone. The majority of the movie-watching public has trouble rooting for a leading man who isn’t a) a good guy, b) trying to be a good guy, or c) is secretly a good guy, but only we know about it. That’s one of the reasons Planes, Trains, and Automobiles is so loved – Neal is obviously the prototypical good guy in a tough situation.

One could never say the same about Peter. Even with fatherhood looming over the entire picture, Peter never makes a strong attempt at changing his behavior to be a better dad. I, for one, am worried about the environment under which his child will grow up. This did not keep me from enjoying the hell out of the movie, though. It’s dark comedy, but it’s true comedy. It’s realistic, which isn’t the word immediately springing to mind for a movie featuring a masturbating dog. Still, it applies.

The only truly frustrating part of the Due Date Blu-ray experience was the disc’s disheartening supplemental features. With five separate entries, including deleted scenes, a gag reel, two cut-ups of film highlights, and the segment from Two and a Half Men in which Ethan Tremblay appears, it sounds satisfactory. Sure, it would be nice to have commentary by the two stars or even the director (who makes a brief cameo as a drug dealer’s lover), but that’s always the case. Unfortunately, even the provided extras disappoint. Each one holds only enough footage to qualify its existence, not nearly enough to justify it. The comedy and action mash-ups are less than a minute each. The deleted scenes total four minutes. The gag reel tops out at seven. I thought one of the reasons for the switch to Blu-ray was because the discs had so much space…no?

Though maybe not worthy of the extra dough on Blu-ray, Due Date will be a steal when it inevitably ends up in the $5 bin at Wal-Mart and stacks used DVD shelves at your local shops. Pop it in when you’re feeling a little devilish. You might as well live vicariously through Robert Downey Jr., even if he is a jerk, because Steve Martin won’t ever be able to cut it.

RATING 6 / 10