By Owen Gleiberman
Updated May 30, 2011 at 05:59 PM EDT
Credit: Dimitrios Kambouris/
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The Hangover Part II may have had the biggest opening five-day haul of any comedy in history, but the collective Internet/media/ spectator-snark voice has spoken, and the verdict is not pretty. The Hangover Part II, it is said, reduces the first Hangover to a transparently contrived formula; it’s a cookie-cutter comedy, way too safe and pat; it doesn’t do anything that’s really unpredictable; it’s more of the same; and beyond that (did I mention this point yet?), it’s more of the same. To which I can only react by asking: And you were expecting the movie to be what, exactly…?

Two summers ago, if you happened to think that The Hangover was one of the funniest movies you’d ever seen, I guess it makes sense that you’d find The Hangover Part II a lot less fresh, wild, and original, less full of the shock and surprise that a great comedy thrives on. There’s no question that The Hangover Part II is, at heart, a cookie-cutter movie (though I would say it’s a good one). Here’s the thing: To me, the original Hangover was a cookie-cutter movie, too, and in a fairly obvious way. The moment that Phil, Stu, and Alan woke up in that Vegas hotel room in their groggy-druggy morning-after daze, the implication is that they must have been involved in some extremely crazed and dangerous stuff — but as each clue got explained, the picture was revealed to be a series of very standard sitcom mixups played in reverse. It became apparent, roughly halfway through, that the movie was completely formulaic (albeit in a breezy likable way). So how can you make a sequel to a comedy that’s that rigidly engineered and come up with anything that’s less than cookie-cutter?

Okay, we could probably debate this all day. But here’s what can’t be debated: Todd Phillips (pictured above), the director of The Hangover and The Hangover Part II, has become Hollywood’s new king of comedy. He now has the clout, the high visibility (he’s shrewd about exploiting his reptilian hipster vibe in cameo appearances in his own movies), the fanboy following, and the mainstream stylistic stamp (“A Todd Phillips Movie”) to do more or less whatever he wants. And that leads me to the real question of this post: What, aside from The Hangover Part III, does Todd Phillips really want to do? He’s a very talented director, with a sixth sense for how to make people laugh. Yet does he have any desire to become, you know, a more organic artist of screen comedy? By which I mean: Would he ever like to make a mainstream comedy that really takes a chance?

In the interests of disclosure, a little background. I was friendly with Todd for a few years in the ’90s, before he went off to Hollywood (I’ve had no contact with him since), and when he did, I was thrilled to see his ascent. Back when I knew him, he was a wickedly witty straight shooter (and a very nice guy) who idolized Howard Stern and had a boundless appetite for stuff that was funny and darkly subversive at the same time. He had a thing for comedy that rose up from the edge of reality. (That’s why he dug the vérité spectacle of walking outrages like Al Goldstein.) I got to know Todd around the time that he showed his first film, the 1994 documentary Hated (made as his senior thesis at NYU), about the scandalously depraved punk rocker GG Allin, and I began to follow his work, taking a particular interest in Frat House, his funny and scary exposé of fraternity hazing rituals.

It was at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival, where Frat House premiered, that a bit of Hollywood history was made. Ivan Reitman was there, because his son Jason (who would go on to direct Juno and Up in the Air) had his own first short film in the festival, and Phillips seized the opportunity to introduce himself to Ivan Reitman and pitch him on the spot. He said, in essence: I want to make a movie that brings back the 1980s. The bawdiness and the rowdy joy. The spirit of Animal House.

The pitch worked. Two years later, with Reitman serving as producer, Phillips left the world of indie documentaries behind to make his first Hollywood movie, Road Trip (2000). I thought it was the perfect way for an eager young filmmaker to show off his chops, to create a sense of fun, and to prove his commercial mettle. When the movie came out, I gave Road Trip a B and had this to say about it:

“No one could have guessed that the grade-Z Animal House clones would one day be remembered as hip, dumb touchstones and fondly recycled in movies like American Pie and the clever, shallow, genially vulgar Road Trip. The new models, if anything, are superior to the old — smartly paced studio machines stocked with gifted young actors who love to clown… The very title Road Trip has a basic-goods, ’80s-nostalgia flavor; it hints that the movie is going to revel in its high-concept, lowbrow glory. The director, Todd Phillips, is careful not to break any taboos that haven’t already been thoroughly pre-smashed; he stages the movie as a series of flip, naughty but not too naughty set pieces.”

I was probably being a bit churlish. Over the years, I’ve caught bits and pieces of Road Trip on TV again, and it always makes me grin. I love DJ Qualls doing his oh-no-he-didn’t nerd-dance to Run–D.M.C.’s “It’s Tricky,” and a handful of other scenes. Road Trip is the definition of a movie that is what it is — in this case, an affectionate non-ironic flashback to ’80s schlock. It was the perfect entry point for a shrewd novice who understood that Hollywood had become a great, big recycling bin. But though I always expected Todd Phillips to be successful, it never occurred to me that he would do so by basing his entire career on recycling that same ’80s vibe — the now all-but-officially sanctioned slob humor and faux-naughtiness, the guys will be guys stupido high jinks, the how-smart-can-we-be-about-being-dumb VHS-era nostalgia.

Okay, you say, what’s wrong with that? Well, for one thing, it gives all of Phillips’ movies a slightly synthetic quality. That may be appropriate when he’s doing a stylized lark like Old School (2003), or even a low-camp Cheez Doodle like Starsky & Hutch (2004), but I really became aware of the limitations that Phillips was bumping up against when I saw the first film he made after The HangoverDue Date (2010), the road-trip buddy comedy that paired Robert Downey Jr. as a short-fused architect struggling to get back to L.A. before his wife gives birth and Zach Galifianakis as a metaphysically annoying dim-bulb loser-schlub. It’s the kind of movie we’ve all seen a million times before, but Phillips staged it beautifully, letting the actors perform in their own rhythms, so that their hate chemistry came to a hilarious slow boil. It was an impeccably executed high-concept movie…and yet, when it was over, I thought: It never transcended being a high-concept movie. I mean, what can you say when a very talented director, coming off his biggest hit, makes what is arguably his most personal film to date, and it’s basically just a hipper, less bumptious version of Planes, Trains & Automobiles?

What I wonder about Todd Phillips is that, in buying so fully into the ethos of the ’80s, did he also buy — a little too much — into the Hollywood mentality that was born at the time, the one that said: Give the people what they want, over and over again, and watch success at the box office become its own reward. Personally, I’m cheered that Phillips is so successful, but what I’d love to see him do now is to make a movie that breaks off into a more naturalistic behavioral zone, the way that the best Judd Apatow-produced comedies, like Superbad and Bridesmaids, have done. I’d also love to see him make a movie that goes deeper into the outrageousness I know he has in him. Probably the funniest sequence in The Hangover Part II is the one where Stu discovers what he was up to in the back room of a Bangkok strip club. The dialogue is, almost literally, balls-out hilarious, but the only trouble with a scene like that one is that it suddenly sets the bar very high. The movie would have done well to deliver half a dozen more laughs on that same level of I-can’t-believe-what-I’m-hearing.

Of course, Todd Phillips doesn’t need my advice. He’s running his career just fine. The question he should ask himself is: Now that he’s the king of comedy, does he simply want to go on and on in his cautiously quasi-outrageous pre-chewed-for-middle-class-consumption I love the ’80s way? Does he just want to rule? Or does he truly want to rock?

Did you think The Hangover Part II was a dud, or (like me) do you think that the people who went into it expecting something “different” went to the wrong film? And what’s your favorite Todd Phillips movie? What do you think is his defining feature as a comedy director…apart from the obvious fact that his movies are, you know, funny?

Follow Owen on Twitter: @OwenGleiberman

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