The director of Joker may have the last laugh
If Todd Phillips’ career arc to this moment — with two major Golden Globes on the line this weekend, poised for Oscars contention — seems familiar, you might look at Peter Farrelly last year. Phillips’ Joker may be as polarizing as Farrelly’s Academy Award-winning Green Book, but fans of those films feel they provide insight to the world we live in today—a quality most Academy voters at least look for in the films to which they give the biggest prizes. With Phillips already benefiting from the same type of praise his comedy contemporary Farrelly received last awards season, there’s a strong case to be made that he too could be a big winner on Sunday and beyond.
Farrelly first dipped his toes into the awards race in 1998 with a single Golden Globe nomination for There’s Something About Mary in the Best Motion Picture, Comedy or Musical category. Phillips won that same category with The Hangover in 2009, and is now nominated in the Drama category; he also scored a previous Oscar nomination in 2007 for his story by credit on Borat.
Now, Phillips is getting all the Golden Globes nominations Farrelly got last year, from Best Screenplay to Best Director to Best Picture. If the momentum continues, Phillips will be getting key nominations from guilds like the DGA and WGA this month, before collecting a statue or two at the Oscars. A major career sea change for one of the “kings of gross-out comedy,” and a director who’s films have been described as “paragons of outrageousness.”
Where the filmmakers differ, though, starts with their approach to their prestige projects. Farrelly breezed through talking points about the origins of Green Book, saying he just happened upon a slam dunk script based on a true story, co-written by the son of one of the film’s main characters. “I wasn’t thinking at that time, Hey, you should do a departure,” the director told Vulture. Looking back on the making of Green Book — and its surprise Audience Award win at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival — Farrelly told EW, “We were making it fun. When we started showing it around, I started realizing, ‘Oh, this is that kind of movie.’”
Joker, on the other hand, was a more deliberate exit from comedy for Phillips. The director best known for the fairly recent, already considered politically incorrect Hangover film franchise, went on a tear with Vanity Fair about “woke culture” killing studio comedies. “I’ll tell you why, because all the f—ing funny guys are like, ‘F— this s—, because I don’t want to offend you.’ It’s hard to argue with 30 million people on Twitter.” He continued: “I think that what comedies in general all have in common is they’re irreverent. So I go, ‘How do I do something irreverent, but f— comedy? Oh I know, let’s take the comic book movie universe and turn it on its head with [Joker].’”
And with Joker — originally with Martin Scorsese in talks to produce — Phillips was situated to kickstart a new DC film division focused on making smaller, more auteurist takes on superhero films. The type of superhero films that could get Oscar nominations, like Logan (a 2018 nominee for Best Adapted Screenplay).
One setback Phillips should prepare for, which happened to Farrelly last year, is no Oscar nomination for Best Director. Though, that may not necessarily be a bad thing: Ultimately, if the awards narrative implies a lack of experience in making prestige films, and you’re competing against master filmmakers like Spike Lee or Quentin Tarantino who have never won a Best Director Oscar, it may be a wasted effort focusing any energy on that award. Recent directors like Farrelly with Green Book, or Ben Affleck with Argo, lost out on directing nominations but won Best Picture for their projects.
Phillips certainly has a shot at winning Best Director at the Golden Globes — crazier wins have happened at the ceremony — but if his award season continues to mirror his former comedy peer Farrelly, the Joker filmmaker’s most likely aspiration may be for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Picture wins at the Oscars. Even if he loses out on Best Director at the Globes (or the Academy Awards), those wins would still establish Phillips as a prestige filmmaker, and give Joker the last laugh.