Road trip movies have been around forever. In fact, most lists of the top films in the genre will include 1934’s “It Happened One Night,” directed by Frank Capra and starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert. And from 1940 to 1962 Bob Hope and Bing Crosby added seven of their road films to the list that has become almost endless today.
Although I am not a big fan of this type of movie, I will admit that, like everyone else, I have my favorites that include “Little Miss Sunshine,” “Almost Famous,” “Thelma & Louise,” “Rain Man,” and “National Lampoon’s Vacation.” In my humble opinion, films like these qualify for a place in the Road Trip Films Hall of Fame.
The most recent contribution to the road trip genre is “Due Date,” starring Robert Downey Jr. and Zach Galifianakis, and because I consider Downey Jr. one of Hollywood’s most talented actors (I rank him right up there with Johnny Depp as a performer who refuses to be typecast.), I was really looking forward to this movie. But despite the efforts of Downey Jr. and Galifianakis, the film is mediocre at best, and it certainly is one that I could never sit through again.
Downey portrays Peter Highman, a Los Angeles architect who has been in Atlanta on a business trip. Peter and his wife, Sarah (Michelle Monaghan), are expecting their first child in five days, and he is eager to get home so to be with her when she delivers. While he’s at the airport, he meets a guy named Ethan Tremblay (Galifianakis), an eccentric actor with an equally idiosyncratic bulldog. Through a series of circumstances too detailed to delineate here Ethan manages to get both of them banned from the plane and placed on a no-fly list.
Now Peter has a real problem. He has lost his luggage and his wallet, so he has no money, no identification, and no transportation. As he is outside the airport considering his options, Ethan shows behind the wheel of a car and offers Peter a ride home. However, Peter still is very angry about the trouble Ethan has caused, and he sets some guidelines before he accepts the ride.
“If you’re going to travel with me to Los Angeles I have to give you a couple of guidelines. Number one: don’t ask me a single question.”
But Ethan makes it quite clear that he is not about to let Peter walk all over him.
“Guess who’s got the Subaru Impreza? Me! Guess who’s got the winning personality? Me! What do you have? You have a nice hairline. Fine. You have a strong jaw. But I gotta tell you, mister, your personality needs some work.”
Peter gets into the car, and the road trip is on.
As you would expect, the trip from Atlanta to Los Angeles is a rocky one filled with various adventures along the way, and, of course, Peter’s attempt to be at Sarah’s side when she has their baby goes down to the wire. And the scene where he is racing through the hospital to find his wife is one of the best in the movie.
Another very good scene is the one where Ethan stops to buy marijuana for his glaucoma. Juliette Lewis plays his drug dealer, and she really makes the best of her small part here. Lewis is particularly gifted at portraying quirky characters, and she makes Heidi a real hoot.
Much of the humor in the film is generated by the vast difference in personalities between Peter and Ethan. The former is a rather conservative and serious professional whereas the latter is a pot-smoking, free spirit. In the film’s production notes, Downey offered a perceptive analysis of both Ethan and Peter.
“If there really was somebody like Ethan around, he’d have been strangled in his sleep long ago. He’s like a laser beam that focuses on the one thing that will drive you crazy the most, the kind of guy who will eat a whole plate of waffles before mentioning he’s allergic to waffles. I’m sure a lot of people know someone like this, someone who is perfectly wired to activate all of their irritation buttons. He’s (Peter) kind of an edgy, controlling, judgmental guy with some anger-management issues. And who better to help him explore those issues than Ethan Tremblay? High-strung as he is normally, Peter is now facing the birth of his first child and is thrown into this nightmare, so it’s all amped up.”
And Galifianakis offered this insight into his character.
“Nothing affects him, no insult seems to penetrate. Ethan lives in his own head. He has no talent, and he’s on his way to Hollywood to capitalize on that. These two guys meet through a series of unfortunate circumstances that are entirely Ethan’s fault, to which he is completely oblivious. And every bad thing that happens from that point on is Ethan’s fault. Everything.”
In addition to containing far too many filler scenes showing a moving car, this movie was much too short on humor to make it an effective comedy. I also thought the chemistry between Downey and Galifianakis lacked any real electricity. In fact there were places in the film where Downey actually appeared to be bored with his role. This is disappointing because Todd Phillips directed the film, and he also was the guy behind the camera for “The Hangover,” and that was a very funny film in places.
If you go to see “Due Date” (We’ll give it a final score of 5.) expecting to be rolling in aisles in the throes of gales of laughter, forget it. The film does offer a few humorous bits, but overall it is pretty much of a flop. In fact this road trip movie isn’t really worth making the trip to theater.