October 23, 2014

This Week’s Popcorn — ‘Due Date’

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‘Due Date’ has not so great expectations

2 popcorns

By Michael S. Goldberger
Special to the Observer

“Sacrilege … plagiarism … they did everything but pay the original writer royalties.” Thus I incredulously uttered as the plot of director Todd Phillips’s “Due Date” unspooled. Indignantly, I analogized my initial distaste. It was like once having a dear friend, now passed, and here shows up this less gifted usurper, this pretender to the hallowed throne.

The fact is, beloved films are indeed old companions, and we don’t care for anyone stomping on their memory. Granted, although this oil and water, couldn’t-possibly-ever-be-buddies road trip isn’t a word for word copy of John Hughes’s “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” (1987), it stops just short of earning a place in some lawyer’s legal brief.

But while there is no outright violation of copyright, “Due Date” is guilty of a far worse offense. I hereby accuse the filmmaker of the artistic crime of committing a variation on a theme without veiling it in a novel twist. Psst. Don’t tell anyone. If we dig deep enough, we could probably even find the inspirational precedent for the classic it disses.

In any event, after duly noting this filmic felony, it behooves the critic to make a full disclosure. Call it temporary insanity or a movie reviewer’s version of the Stockholm Syndrome. But after the disbelief wore off, I found myself tittering, spiritedly laughing and, yes, even guffawing at Robert Downey Jr. and Zach Galifianakis’ antics.

OK. So it’s not a real Rolex. Yet despite the obvious rip-off, the rapid-fire succession of adolescently inspired buffoonery enticed me to adopt an any-port-in-a-storm attitude, to take the laughs where I may … especially after the midterm elections. Am I bad? Maybe not. Perhaps it says I’m open-minded, and not that I can be bought for a cheap laugh.

You probably know the plot. But here’s a little refresher. Robert Downey Jr. does the Steve Martin part. He is Peter Highman, a buttoned-down, conservative architect who not only didn’t inhale, but looks down his nose at anything he considers déclassé. In Atlanta on business, he’s off to Los Angeles to be at his wife’s side when their firstborn arrives.

But thanks to the un-friend who will soon be foisted on him, this will not be easy. Enter his direct antithesis, bumbling, stumbling and switching his pot-containing luggage with Peter’s at the airport. Assuming the John Candy role, his French bulldog in tow, Zach Galifianakis is Ethan Tremblay, a would-be actor hoping to make it big in Hollywood.

Through what seems like a series of coincidences, their fortunes are soon as inextricably tied as the proverbial wet shoelace. Of course, lonely, multi-issue Ethan, whose dad just recently died, sees it as an opportunity to make a pal. Just as predictably, haughty Peter wants no part of what appears to be an unsavory loser. He will have no choice.

The airline has put them both on the no-fly list, and amidst this mess Peter has lost his wallet and credit cards, and thus his independence. Ethan, who has by now rented a car, suggests that the two set out for the Left Coast together. The picture of reluctant pragmatism, Peter accepts. The “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” redux is on the road.

Although the script isn’t an exact stencil of its iconic model, the ebb and flow of Ethan and Peter’s cross-country travail contains an analogous, farcical speed bump for every incident that befell arrogant Neal Page (Steve Martin) and sad sack Del Griffith (John Candy). No need to itemize each one here; you’ll point them out along the way.

Plainly, Messrs. Downey and Galifianakis’s representations are neither an homage to, nor a creative reinvention of, their spiritual predecessors. Instead, they occupy a no man’s land between the two. But more importantly, by failing to establish personae beyond hollow stereotypes, it invites the original film to haunt the work at every turn.

Consequently, the underachieving movie doesn’t strive beyond the adolescent cachet director Phillips seizes on in most of his efforts. Admittedly, it often entertains on this low-brow level. But without full-bodied characterizations there can be no successful establishment of the bittersweet component necessary to a tale of conflicted relationship.

Downey’s Peter Highman is uptight and intolerant, with only smidgens of potential humanity peeking through the cliché. Mr. Galifianakis’ Ethan, on the other hand, is a rationalizing mass of emotive flotsam and jetsam. While we’re not quite sure who or what he is, our better instincts suggest empathy for whatever the actor is trying to portray.

The result is diversion by default. So see it if there’s nothing new at the Rivoli, your mail carrier gave your latest Netflix to someone cross-town, or because it’s being shown on a plane and just has to be less boring than the guy sitting next to you. Otherwise, no bundle of joy, “Due Date” delivers pretty much what you were expecting.

“Due Date,” rated R, is a Warner Bros. Pictures release directed by Todd Phillips and stars Robert Downey Jr., Zach Galifianakis and Michelle Monaghan. Running time: 100 minutes.

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