Hot off “The Hangover,” director Todd Phillips and Zach Galifianakis reteam for more R-rated mayhem in “Due Date,” delivering a “Planes, Trains and Automobiles”-style cross-country odd-couple comedy that’s less raunchy than their last collaboration but every bit as outrageous. With a sequel to 2009’s hit bachelor-party romp greenlit even before it opened, Phillips clearly saw “Due Date” as a necessary change of pace — albeit one that circles back to his rowdy “Road Trip” roots. As such, Warners will be lucky to attract a fraction of the “Hangover” crowd to watch two grounded travelers driving each other crazy.
Only an architect like Peter Highman, the tightly wound character Robert Downey Jr. portrays desperately trying to get home in time for his first child’s birth, could appreciate a comic foil so perfectly constructed to annoy as Galifianakis’ Ethan Tremblay. In fact, so infuriating is Ethan that “Due Date” very nearly loses us, too, at the outset, but over time, the bearded boor manages to win everyone over, audience included.
The two opposites collide outside the Atlanta airport, where Ethan’s beat-up station wagon knocks the door off Peter’s chauffeured town car. It’s quite an entrance, capped by a slow-motion reveal of Ethan’s character. Apart from the over-the-shoulder dog-carrying case, the rest of his ensemble suggests the sort of person who committed to his look sometime in the mid-’80s and hasn’t done much to alter it since.
Early on, Phillips shows things mostly from the more fashion-conscious Peter’s point of view, and it’s easy to understand why the GQ-ready dad-to-be might not appreciate being seated next to someone so gauche on his long flight back to Los Angeles. Things only get worse when the two are booted off the plane together and added to the no-fly list. Skipping a few glaring logical steps, Peter agrees to carpool to California with his bad-luck companion. And so the torture begins.
It took Phillips five features to land on the style he established in “The Hangover,” and “Due Date” looks and feels awfully similar, subbing a steely blue-gray tint for “The Hangover’s” golden baked-Vegas glow (courtesy of returning d.p. Lawrence Sher). Phillips, a hands-on helmer who went uncredited for his rewrite contributions on the 2009 summer smash, shares screenplay billing here with “King of the Hill” vets Alan R. Cohen and Alan Freedland, as well as Adam Sztykiel, and though his instinct for original, over-the-top setpieces comes through — best evidenced by a haywire detour across the Mexican border — the plot feels drearily linear and predictably episodic by comparison.
Since Peter’s expectant wife (Michelle Monaghan) is planning to give birth by C-section, she has control over when the baby’s going to come, which means there’s only limited urgency to Peter and Ethan’s road trip. So the film becomes an exercise in playing the two mismatched personalities against each other: Ethan prods Peter with constant questions, makes a dodgy detour to acquire “medical marijuana” and insists on pleasuring himself to sleep (an activity amusingly mirrored by his dog), while his anger-prone companion does his best to avoid murdering the overgrown man-child.
Surely an early draft of the script must have considered this a trial by fire for fatherhood, even though the final cut conspicuously lacks the “is this guy really ready to be a dad” introspection that invariably accompanies such scenarios. It’s worth noting that Phillips has once again mixed dramatic and comedic performers: While picking Monaghan over a funnier actress marks a missed opportunity, Downey brings just the right combination of wry humor and brink-of-losing-it unpredictability.
Eventually, Peter comes to realize that while Ethan may be uncouth — and downright dangerous — he’s not without sympathetic qualities. For example, Ethan is mourning the recent death of his own dad and looking for the right spot to spread his father’s remains along the way. So there it is: birth and death, the whole darn circle of life evoked in service of a few hearty knee-slappers and a doozy of a spit-take, with the ashes-filled coffee tin supplying the most poignant and outrageous moments in the film.
As the pair make their way West, the only surprises not sampled in the trailer are the drug-related ones, which means auds know to expect cameos from Danny McBride and Jamie Foxx, but don’t know which actress will turn up as Ethan’s pot dealer — another strategy learned on his last film, that familiar faces in small roles can go a long way. However different this pic, it’ll have to do until Phillips delivers his “Hangover” sequel.