Director Todd Phillips, famed for last year’s celebrated movie, The Hangover, has teamed up again with Zach Galifianakis, his most valuable player from the earlier film, to bring us Due Date, a whacky little picture that relies on outlandish circumstances and crazy characters to teach us something about finding companionship in the least likely of places. The comedy here is strong and the performances from the two main actors, Galifianakis and Robert Downey Jr., are immensely pleasurable to watch, but Phillips’ real gift is in creating a relaxing atmosphere in his movies. You can literally just sit back and enjoy this film while it does all the work for you, delivering genuine humor from endearing characters. Everything is provided; it is a veritable schmorgasboard of cinematic recreation. Phillips accomplished this in The Hangover and proves with Due Date that he knows how to capitalize on the strongest parts of his craft while seeking to improve the remainder.

Unfortunately, however, I’ve seen this movie before. And I’m not saying that I’ve seen movies “like this” before. Sure, the “unlikely friends” trope has been repeatedly explored in numerous manifestations, from buddy flicks to romantic comedies. The idea of pairing wackiness with sobriety is also not at all fresh, but what I really mean is that the exact script of Due Date also made up the plot of 1987’s Planes, Trains and Automobiles, written and directed by the legendary John Hughes. Of course, I first made this relatively obvious connection months ago upon seeing the trailer for the promising Due Date, but nothing could have prepared me for how embarrassingly identical the two stories would turn out to be. The premise of either film can be described in the exact same words, with a few blanks left in which to insert specific names, dates, occupations, etc. Please observe.

In [Due Date / Planes, Trains and Automobiles], a stuffy, Type-A, too-serious-for-his-own-good [architect / advertising executive] played by [Robert Downey, Jr. / Steve Martin] is struggling to get home to his [pregnant wife whose due date is imminent / wife and kids who have planned a Thanksgiving celebration] after he [was kicked off an airplane / had his flight canceled due to inclement weather]. He finds it impossible to rent a car on his own, but luckily hitches a ride in a rental car with an obnoxious, overzealous [aspiring actor / shower curtain ring salesman], endearingly portrayed by [Zach Galifianakis / John Candy], who promises to drive him to [Los Angeles / Chicago] and get him safely home in time for the rapidly approaching deadline. The personalities of the two travel companions are like oil and water, and the whacky guy gets on the straight guy’s nerves so much that the latter contemplates everything from abandonment to physical attack. The journey upon which the two embark is both literal and metaphorical, as it has a way of softening [Downey Jr.’s / Martin’s] character while simultaneously helping [Galifianakis’ / Candy’s] character cope with the death of a loved one.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg. I could go on by comparing almost every detail of the two movies (which also follow an almost identical chronology), but I wouldn’t want to be responsible for spoilers, if such things exist in movies that are essentially remakes. I should mention that, after seeing Due Date, someone made the valuable point that there were no trains in the picture, which made me pause in a moment of undeniable hopefulness, but then I remembered that there is a chase scene with a trailer, which does constitute a different form of transportation than a straightforward automobile. So while you couldn’t nicely fit Due Date under the title of Hughes’ movie, you could call it Planes, Trailers and Automobiles and you’d be pretty much on the money.

To be fair, the jokes in Due Date are of a different ilk than those of its predecessor, and the entire tone of the movie is distinctly Phillips, which makes it worth contemplating as an enterprise of its own, even if it comes dangerously close to forfeiting all claims to originality. The movie also provides a great venue for Downey, Jr. and Galifianakis to show off their new cinematic chemistry and reliable raw talents. Besides, as far as I’m concerned, there are definitely worse plots to rip off, so at least Due Date gets props for imitating one of the best.

Starring: Robert Downey, Jr., Zach Galifianakis, Michelle Monaghan, Jamie Foxx, RZA
Director: Todd Phillips
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Runtime: 100 minutes
Rating: R