A version of this review appeared in The Age, November 25, 2010.
As modern Hollywood comedies go, Todd Phillips' follow-up to his highly successful The Hangover is a standard, no-frills package: loosely shaped, full of apparent ad-libs, alternating between politically incorrect shock gags and strained moments of uplift. Robert Downey Jr stars as Peter Highman, an architect travelling home to Los Angeles. At the airport, he encounters Ethan Tremblay (Zach Galifianakis), a pot-addled aspiring actor whose misbehaviour gets both of them kicked off the flight – and so these unlikely buddies set out on a road trip across America.
In other words, this is basically Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987) for the 21st century, or Rain Man (1988) without the autism – or maybe Bringing Up Baby (1936) with Galifianakis in the Katherine Hepburn role. Add that Ethan is dealing with the death of his father, while Peter is awaiting the birth of his first child, and it's clear that the scenario offers ample opportunity for male bonding as well as hijinks.
Your enjoyment of Due Date will largely depend on your tolerance for the inexplicably popular Galifianakis – a stocky, bearded fellow with the look of a defective teddy bear and a penchant for ironic crybaby hysteria. Like many stand-up comedians, Galifianakis struggles to express “sincere” feeling with any conviction. Yet when disruptive energy is called for, he stays soft and limp, as if blandness were a joke in itself. Ethan is meant to be annoying but the character never amounts to more than a bundle of unlikely affectations – a scarf, a sashaying walk, a horrid little dog. It's hard to care about his supposed grief when he barely seems real enough to have a family in the first place.
If the film remains watchable, it's wholly thanks to Downey, a master of comic timing who finds multiple ways of playing with and against the formulaic material. Peter may have been written as a square with an anger management problem, but Downey can't help making him the smartest guy in any room – maintaining a finicky precision in the midst of chaos, while treating Ethan's dullness as a spur to his own wit.