Tag Archives: Todd Phillips

The Man Who Laughs


by Hope Madden and George Wolf

Todd Phillips, director of the Hangover trilogy among other comedies, recently told Vanity Fair that he had to get out of comedy because woke culture made it impossible to be funny.

That sounds like a butthurt white guy nobody thinks is funny. Doesn’t that actually make him the perfect person to reimagine Joker?

Directing and co-writing with Scott Silver (The Fighter), Phillips offers an origin story that sees mental illness, childhood trauma, adult alienation and societal disregard as the ingredients that form a singular villain—a man who cannot come into his own until he embraces his inner sinister clown.

It’s a dangerous idea and a dangerous film, but that doesn’t make it a bad movie. In many respects—though not all—it is a great movie. This is partly thanks to an ambitious screenplay, Lawrence Sher’s intense cinematography, solid directorial instincts with some beautifully staged violence and constant (indeed, fanboy-esque) nods to Scorsese.

But let’s be honest, it’s mainly because Joaquin Phoenix is a god among actors. His scenes of transformation, his scenes alone, his mesmerizing command of physicality, and in particular his unerringly unnerving chemistry with other actors are haunting.

Phoenix is Arthur Fleck, (or Afleck, if you were giving points for Batman references) wannabe standup comic and put upon outcast in 1981 Gotham City. The garbage strike has everyone testy. Rich, entitled Thomas Wayne (Bruce’s dad) isn’t helping matters with his bid for the mayor’s office and his disdain for those who are struggling.

Since Phillips genuflects to both Taxi Driver and King of Comedy, it is appropriate that Robert DeNiro, with some snazzy new teeth, participates as Murray Franklin, the late night legend that Arthur and his mother (Frances Conroy) watch every night.

More than once, Phillips does not trust his audience to stay with the direction he’s taken, and it’s unfortunate. These “look what I’m doing here” scenes drag the film, but as long as you never take your eyes off Phoenix (and who could?), you’re not likely to notice.

A pivotal moment where Arthur crashes a posh screening of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times is Phillips’s less-than-subtle reminder that it has always been the clowns in this world who reflect society’s reality back to us. It’s a wise move to make this an alienated-to-the-point-of-violence white guy who takes his frustrations out not on the powerless, but on those with power, thus becoming a kind of hero himself.

Of course, the inclusion of Chaplin could also be read as a direct admission that Joker is a comment on our modern times. Superhero universe? Fanatical throngs blindly following a sociopath? Checks out.

But similar to Phillips’s approach with War Dogs three years ago, an uneven tone lessens the intended impact. Alongside the straightforward Scorsese homages are left turns into Oliver Stone territory a la Natural Born Killers. That black comedic satire is a tough nut regardless, even more so if comes in fits and starts.

Credit Phillips for a damn the torpedoes vision that’s damn near palpable, but it’s impossible to imagine this all meshing as well as it does without Phoenix. His presence is completely transfixing, always convincing you that he is here to fulfill this legendary character’s destiny.

Remember when we thought Nicholson could never be topped? Then Ledger did it. And now Phoenix makes this the darkest, most in-the-moment Joker we’ve seen.

And it’s chilling.

So, Phillips succeeded in making an anti-comedy and anti-comic book movie because bro culture totally rules and comedy is dead and that’s not a privileged cop out at all. But then, it is possible to separate art and the artist.

We all still love Rosemary’s Baby, right?

Wolf of War Street

War Dogs

by George Wolf

War Dogs starts with a guy in the trunk of a car and works backward, ending two hours later over the sound of Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows.” Though both devices are tactical errors, what’s between them is a fairly effective take on true, undeniably American events.

David Packouz (Miles Teller) was a struggling twenty-something massage therapist in Miami when he re-connected with childhood friend Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill). Together, they grew Diveroli’s modest gun selling business into a 300 million dollar contract with the Pentagon to arm our allies in Afghanistan.

As Diveroli is quick to point out, “It’s not about being pro-war, it’s about being pro-money.”

Director/co-writer Todd Phillips, expanding a resume built on comedies such as The Hangover trilogy and Old School, brings a suitable zest to the insanity of this guns-to-riches tale, but falters when the time comes to move beyond his filmmaking comfort zone.

With The Big Short just last year, Adam McKay brought comedic sensibilities to the complexities behind financial corruption, dissecting a scandal with humor, insight, and most importantly, a constant undercurrent of outrage that War Dogs is missing.

It does feature a fantastic performance from Hill, and if you still doubt his acting chops after two Oscar nominations, that’s a YP. Hill is magnetic, making Diveroli a darkly charming sociopath who effortlessly becomes whomever his latest mark wants him to be. Don’t be surprised if nomination number three comes calling in a few months.

Teller is fine, if a bit underwhelming next to Hill, while Ana de Armas is asked to do little more than hold a baby in the embarrassingly cliched role of Packouz’s wife.

Phillips does serve up some hearty laughs and effective set pieces while telling this incredible tale, but too much of the journey feels like a testosterone-fueled romp that’s more about respect for the boys’ brazen ambition than the sad truths it revealed. It’s not that Phillips doesn’t want to dig deeper, he’s just not sure how to do it on his own terms.

More than anything, War Dogs is a film that constantly reminds you of other films. The Hangover vibe is rampant, from the guy in the trunk to the effective cameo by Bradley Cooper, but there are also shots lifted right from Scarface and Rain Man, plus stylistic nods to multiple Scorsese titles, especially Wolf of Wall Street.

That film, like The Big Short, carried a healthy dose of cynicism to dig at the wages of excess. War Dogs doesn’t, and closing with one of the most brilliantly cynical songs ever written only makes that fact more obvious.

It’s clear Phillips knows how to make us laugh. War Dogs is his uncertain step toward making us think, too.



Fewer Tigers, More Zach

by George Wolf


Yes, Virginia, there is a hangover in The Hangover Part III, and it’s a funny one, but the madcap adventure-filled road that leads to it is a bit uneven.

Following a bona fide classic like The Hangover was always a tough assignment. The crazy freshness that film brought to the what-happened-last-night-formula just can’t be cloned, and the attempt to do just that in part 2 came off as a disappointing inside joke. The third installment gets some of the original mojo back by giving the Wolfpack a new reason get their Vegas on.

That reason is one Leslie Chow (Ken Jeong), whose trail of enemies includes Mr. Marshall (John Goodman), a vengeful crime boss that eagle-eared moviegoers might remember from a quick mention in part one.

Seems Marshall wants the millions that Chow stole from him, so he kidnaps the Wolfpack, threatening to kill (who else?) Doug (Justin Bartha) unless Phil (Bradley Cooper), Stu (Ed Helms) and Alan (Zach Galifianakis) can bring their old pal in to face the music.

Director Todd Phillips returns, co- writing the script with his part 2 collaborator Craig Mazin. Together, they craft a tamer, quieter romp, replacing bathroom tigers and hooker weddings with healthy doses of Galifianakis and Jeong.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Those guys don’t need much help to be funny, and Phillips may have realized they were his best chance at newly found laughs. The reason  part 3’s “morning after” scene works so well is because it runs during the credits, sending the trilogy off with a quick reminder of the fun we had discovering the first film. Another entire episode of retracing the Wolfpack’s steps, though, would be pointless, so instead we get a little heist adventure with a side of zany.

There are slow spots, to be sure, but there are laughs as well, maybe just enough to erase that bad hangover from part 2.