The Very Adult World of Todd Phillips

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Ed Helms and Todd Phillips on the set of The Hangover

The other day I was reading an article in Salon magazine. The article was titled “Why we need more ‘adult’ movies?” and it addressed the need for more films with themes that “kids won’t understand” according to the author. Then he went on to sing the praises of two recent movies, The American with George Clooney and The Romantics with Katie Holmes. I have to say I agreed with the premise, we could use more films with adult themes, but I couldn’t agree with what he was saying.

First of all, the author seemed to equate slow pacing with “adult”, going so far as to cite a scene in The Romantics where the camera lingers on Anna Paquin for almost a minute. Slow does not mean adult. (Many of the comments left for the author echoed my sentiments as well including this one from DCMediagirl , “The American is one of the worst movies of the year. I can’t understand why George Clooney agreed to star in this snooze-inducing flick.)

My biggest complaint with the article was the choice of the two movies the author used to make his case. In The American, George Clooney plays the adult version of Peter Pan that he seems to play in every movie while the Katie Holmes vehicle was another in the endless stream of “indie” wedding flicks where a group of maladjusted twenty and thirty-somethings get together and act out their neuroses. These are not adult themed movies in my opinion. They’re childish movies that make Adam Sandler’s Grown Ups seem deep by comparison.

Which is a long way to say the “adult film” I am looking forward to this fall is Todd Phillips’ Due Date, starring Robert Downey, Jr. and Zach Galifianakis. Other than Christopher Nolan, Phillips might be the most consistent filmmaker working today. He is our Preston Sturges. Our Billy Wilder. His films mostly deal with recognizable adults in real world situations. And they’re entertaining as hell.

Look at his record. The first Todd Phillips film I ever saw was the documentary Hated: GG Allin and the Murder Junkies. If you haven’t seen this masterpiece, I suggest you find a way to see it as soon as humanly possible. It’s the Grey Gardens of punk rock movies. Filmed in real time, the documentary includes concert and rehearsal footage as well as interviews with the infamous musician, fellow band-members, friends, detractors and dedicated fans. Allin died of an overdose shortly after the film was completed and Phillips went back and re-edited the movie with footage from the funeral.

Phillips followed that film up with two more documentaries. Frat House, which won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance back when they screened real docs rather than the video broadsheets that dominate the festival today. The he filmed the Phish movie, Bittersweet Hotel. I’m not the biggest Phish fan, but I found the film watchable and fun for the most part. Phish fans, on the other hand, thought it was terrific.

He went on to make two feature films for Ivan Reitman that were heavily influenced by Reitman’s first big hit as a producer, Animal House. Those films were Road Trip and Old School. Road Trip was filmed during that period in the late nineties when the spring and fall movie seasons were filled with teen comedies of all stripes. From post-Scream horror flicks to all those Freddie Prinze, Jr. flicks my niece and her friends used to flock to back then. Road Trip actually sat on the shelf until they re-shot scenes with Tom Green to bookend the film. It may be hard to believe at this point in time but back in the nineties, Tom Green was a TV star on MTV. His presence not only got Road Trip released, it turned it into a minor hit.

What was notable about Road Trip was that it actually mirrored viewers memories of college. It was a comedy and the events that took place were over the top, but the characters were recognizable and the actors age appropriate. They were also played with a certain amount of intelligence that was rare for young adult comedies at the time.

Next up, Phillips addressed one of the most consistent themes in his work. Growing up in a world where many people desperately want to avoid it. In Old School, the characters tried to relive their college days but are ultimately confronted with the fact becoming an adult and falling in love are much more rewarding than arrested adolescence. The film hit a nerve with fans and went on to be a surprise hit in 2003.

Old School is noteworthy for another reason. It showed Phillips’ gift for working with actors and furthering their careers. The leads in Old School were not exactly A-listers when they signed on to the film. Vince Vaughn had been consistently miscast in mostly dramatic fare before he appeared in Old School, and Will Ferrell was coming off several stinkers like A Night At The Roxbury and Superstar. Old School changed the fortunes of both actors in a big way.

Phillips followed up those films with un-credited work on Bad Santa that got him a lot of respect in Hollywood but little acclaim outside of it, the underappreciated School For Scoundrels and the only outright stinker in his entire oeuvre, Starsky and Hutch. Suddenly his career seemed to be floundering.

Then he dropped the bomb with last year’s smash The Hangover. It was not only a big hit for Phillips, it broke both Bradley Cooper and Zach Galifianakis. Two actors that had been kicking around Hollywood for years with limited success. Now you can’t get away from them.

What I loved most about The Hangover was the adult themes peppered throughout the film. The characters might have been involved in sophomoric situations, but they were never sophomoric. Just like in Old School, the adults in The Hangover may have been trying to relive the past but in the end they come to the conclusion that family, friendship and growing up are what really matters in life.

When we see Bradley Cooper with his wife and kids at the end of the film, it’s obvious how important they are to him even though he plays his married life off when he’s around the guys. That’s a character that resonates. We all know that dude in real life. He’s a fully developed, recognizable character.

If there’s one complaint that could be leveled at Phillips it’s that he remakes other people’s films. A lot of people are already calling Due Date a remake of Planes, Trains and Automobiles. I disagree. The stories may not be very original, but his voice certainly is. When you see a Todd Phillips film you know it’s him. The comic timing, the clever turns of a phrase. The pacing.

So, yeah. I’m looking forward to Due Date. The trailers are hilarious and the teaming of Robert Downey, Jr. and Zach Galifianakis looks like comic perfection. Not only that but it’s been awhile since Downey has does a straight comic turn like this. That alone should be the price of admission.

I am looking forward to this one in a big way.