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The Strange Evolution of Todd Phillips as a Director

Most famous for directing the Hangover film series, Todd Phillips seemed like an odd choice to direct DC’s dark rendition of the Joker in a gritty, cape-less psychodrama. Even more odd was the fact that it became one of the best-performing films of 2019, with a musical sequel now on the way. Todd Phillips’ comedy hit may have thrown some people off, but the truth is that Phillips has more experience in creating documentaries and biopics than comedy.


The Hangover & Comedy

Let’s start with the film that put Todd Phillips on the map. Today, the popular comedy movie seems more difficult for studios to achieve amidst big-budget blockbusters, but The Hangover in 2009 stands out as one of the exceptions. It has stood as the highest-grossing R-rated comedy in the US for 15 years, having taken down Beverly Hills Cop’s 25-year record before that.

The Hangover’s Vegas romp has been done before by many other films and shows in the past. In the years since The Hangover, sectors like iGaming have thrived by bringing the action of Vegas online. However, Las Vegas still remains a popular setting that’s instantly recognizable by international audiences. While many use the internet to play online slot games today, it hasn’t dampened the rewatch appeal of movies like The Hangover. As for what it did differently – it used a series of memorable set pieces in a mystery plot that got pieced together by the Wolfpack.

The formula is simple – four friends celebrate a bachelor party in Vegas and one of them goes missing. From there, they need to piece together the wacky events of the night involving a tiger and a Mike Tyson cameo. Throw in some breakout performances from Bradley Cooper, Zach Galifianakis, and Ken Jeong, and Warner Bros. had an instant hit on their hands. Phillips just directed the movie, though Mike Tyson and the tiger were added by Phillips’ rewrites and quickly became lynchpins of the film’s marketing campaign.

War Dogs & Documentary Roots

After the Hangover trilogy, Phillips’ next brush with the box office was War Dogs. The 2016 movie starred Miles Teller (fresh off Whiplash) alongside Jonah Hill, who was continuing his pursuit of more dramatic roles after Wolf of Wall Street. In the film, an unlikely massage therapist becomes a contractor for the US government after reuniting with his childhood friend. The movie was written, directed and produced by Phillips. That said, it’s also based on a true story and so the skeleton of it came from Guy Lawson, who wrote a famous Rolling Stone piece in 2011 that detailed the events. The film made its money back at the box office – an $86.2 million take against its $50 million budget.

War Dogs received mixed reviews, some from those who were unsure of Phillips’ comedic biopic direction. However, Phillips’ earliest projects were documentary films that covered notorious punk rock musician GG Allin, fraternity hell weeks and the 1997 tour of rock band Phish. These are the most obscure of Todd Phillips’ work, but it establishes an interest in the documentary style that he’d want to revisit now that he has the money and status to do so. One of his upcoming films is expected to be a Hulk Hogan biography with Chris Hemsworth playing the man himself.

Joker & A Musical Risk

That brings us to Phillips today, highly regarded for the success of Joker and preparing for the release of its sequel – Joker: Folie à Deux. The first movie was a strange combination of big-name comic movie with a dark, adult tone, subject matter and commentary. Many have said, as praise and criticism, that if you remove the clown makeup, you’re left with a Scorsese story reminiscent of Taxi Driver or The King of Comedy.

The choice to make the sequel a musical, with Lady Gaga joining the cast alongside Joaquin Phoenix, is a bold one. If it pays off, it could rival the success of Joker and Gaga’s biggest film credit, the 2018 remake of A Star Is Born. Given that it’s a DC property, there are also many pitfalls that Phillips could fall into that’ll put critics, and wider moviegoing audiences, off of the film.

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