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Whether or not you consider Todd Phillips] Due Date an homage to or a rip-off of Planes, Trains, and Automobiles depends largely on if you think it’s funny. I do. Both are great examples of a road trip comedy, featuring excellent performances from both leading actors.
As you are aware, Due Date has Robert Downey Jr. and Zach Galifianakis as the straight-laced business guy and the lovable idiot forced to share a cross-country journey together. Such situations inevitably result in comic mishaps as the personalities clash. Epic 1980s filmmaker John Hughes (The Breakfast Club, Ferris Buehler’s Day Off) created the pinnacle film of this sort with 1987’s Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. Steve Martin is the Robert Downey Jr. guy, and John Candy is the Zach Galifianakis guy.
Neil (Martin), an crusty and easily annoyed advertising executive, and Del (Candy), a shower curtain ring salesman, both need to get to Chicago from New York for Thanksgiving. Blizzards force them to use transportation other than airplanes (think trains and automobiles). These events thrust our two unlikely companions into each other’s company for the next three days as they are besieged by the worst Lady Luck has to offer. Highlights include them having to drive a car that’s completely burned, the inevitable “accidental gayness” (“Those aren’t pillows!”) situation, and Neil unleashing a “fuck” word laden tirade at a rental car agent with a priceless punch line.
Both films have wonderful bits of comedy to them, but where the film leaves Due Date behind is in the character depth, especially in John Candy’s character Del, a person who is earnest and good-hearted, and quite fragile when subjected to Neil’s impatient and angry tirades. We like him despite his boring anecdotes, and at the same time empathize with Neil’s frustration, despite his general assholery. This was one of John Hughes greatest talents, creating real, flawed people and making us care about them.
This movie gives us a feast where Due Date gave us a taste. The latter is still a funny romp, and I enjoyed it, but I doubt it will remembered in 25 years the way John Hughes’ film is remembered now.