Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The underrated genius that is a Todd Phillips movie

Hey schlubfans -- apologies for slacking lately. But I'm starting in earnest on my next book and posts will be a little less frequent from now on. But I promise to post at least two to three times per week.

For my first post this week, let me start with a recommendation: Go see The Hangover.

The movie is the product of the extremely underrated imagination of Todd Phillips.

"Who?" you ask.

"Todd Phillips," I answer.

You look at me slightly funny.

"I'm not exactly surprised if you've never heard of him," I add.

Phillips was the director of the movie Road Trip -- which remains the only recorded instance in which Tom Green has actually been amusing. And it starred the always hilarious Seann William Scott (aka "Stifler") who could read a page from the phone book and get laughs.

Road Trip was definitely purile. Occasionally gross. I didn't think that Breckin Meyer was up to the putative lead role. And it ripped off a number of other college and road trip comedies. But damned if it wasn't hilarious -- and one of the best recent movies in its genre. (It wasn't Animal House -- but what is?)

Phillips followed this up with Old School -- which had some of the same problems, but was even funnier. (It might very well have been Will Ferrell's funniest performance.) Whereas Road Trip was a hybrid of frat house comedy and on-the-road comedy, Old School was a hybrid of frat house and middle aged angst.

In the case of Phillips' latest, The Hangover, (in which he has finally dropped college as a theme -- but stuck with middle aged angst) three friends send their fourth off in style in Vegas before he gets married. They stand on the roof of their hotel drinking shots of Jagermeister and....

That's all they remember.

They wake up the next morning with their bridesgroom missing, and no recollection of what happened the night before. One of their trio is missing a tooth, a baby is stashed in their closet and a tiger is in the bathroom. They must then reconstruct their wild night. (No more spoilers or jokes from here on end.)

The movie's central conceit might wear a bit thin after a while -- and not all the surprises are equal (or even make sense) -- but for what it is, The Hangover is a really funny movie.

The three leads are all extremely funny and well thought out. To steal what A.O. Scott said in his review, they "incarnate familiar masculine stereotypes in ways that manage to be moderarely fresh as well as soothingly familar."

Bradley Cooper is the cool, adjusted friend; Ed Helms is the successful, girlfriend-whipped friend; and Zach Galifiankis is the extremely weird (and not-a-little-bit stupid) friend. It makes for a great mix. And, in between their hysterics, each of these friends is anxious to indulge and pamper themselves.

In a sense, Phillips has trod into Judd Apatow territory -- i.e., the problems and concerns of the middle-aged manchild (aka "schlub." At least some of the time.) And he has done so pretty gracefully.

The characters in Phillips' movies are a little less Jewish than the ones in Apatow's. But they suffer the same mental blocks about adulthood. They revel in the same kind of stupid fun (women, drugs, booze) and they studiously avoid the trappings of responsibility.

If there is one criticism I would make, it's that Phillips is determined to keep his movies light and refuses to have any deeper point.

One thing that The 40-Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up had in common was the fact that despite the fact that Apatow had obvious affection for his male heroes, by the end, they had decided to put away childish things. They knew what responsibility was waiting for them -- and they embraced it.

Nothing like that is going to happen in a Phillips movie. They are going to be fun the whole way through. And, in this sense, it keeps them as nothing greater than a collection of really funny sketches. (At least, they don't measure up to Aristotle's definition of drama.) Which is sort of a shame. But if you've just had a few shots of Jager and are looking for a good way to laugh your ass off, by all means go see The Hangover.