The career progression from making broad comedies into making more serious fare is one that more and more film directors have been pursuing of late. Adam McKay, the Saturday Night Live veteran who made such popular funny films as Anchorman, Talladega Nights, and Step Brothers, has in recent years taken a turn towards the more dramatic with The Big Short and Vice, even dissolving his production company with longtime writing partner Will Ferrell.
…while McKay’s turn towards drama appears motivated by a desire to direct important projects and win awards, it appears Phillips has other motivations.
Another director whose work has taken a turn away from comedy is Todd Phillips, who directed such aughts comedy hits as Old School and The Hangover. More recently, he’s been going more dramatic – the third Hangover movie, in fact, was more of an action thriller than a comedy – and more recently he’s directed 2016’s crime drama War Dogs and the ultra-dark DC Universe film Joker, which arrives in theaters Friday. And while McKay’s turn towards drama appears motivated by a desire to direct important projects and win awards, it appears Phillips has other motivations.
Wokeness Killed Comedy
Ahead of the release of Joker, Phillips gave an interview this week in which he explained the change in his career. Speaking to Vanity Fairas part of a profile of Joker’s star, Joaquin Phoenix, Phillips seemed to attribute his move away from comedy as a reaction to the rising “woke” trend in Hollywood.
“Go try to be funny nowadays with this woke culture,” the director said. ““There were articles written about why comedies don’t work anymore—I’ll tell you why, because all the fucking funny guys are like, ‘Fuck this shit, because I don’t want to offend you.’ It’s hard to argue with 30 million people on Twitter. You just can’t do it, right? So you just go, ‘I’m out.’ I’m out, and you know what? With all my comedies—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 fuck comedy?'”
…the truth is, norms and social mores change all the time…
Phillips seems to be talking about some of the objections that have been raised to aspects of his earlier work. For instance – as pointed out by, of all people, Aziz Ansari in his most recent Netflix special – in the first Hangover movie, which came out only ten years ago in 2009, Bradley Cooper’s character says “paging Dr. Faggot.” It’s fair to say that such a line would probably not be included in a studio comedy movie today.
But the truth is, norms and social mores change all the time and, well, it’s probably good that that word doesn’t get tossed around in movies anymore.
Much Ado About Nothing
“Bro comedy” had its day, for a long time. It made Todd Phillips a very wealthy man, and it’s not out of the realm of possibility that it might eventually have its day again. And Phillips, rather than having been cast out from Hollywood for his sins against wokeness, has instead been… put in charge of a major studio tentpole action movie. One that, if it’s a big hit as expected, will give Phillips even more freedom to make whatever movie he likes next. Cancelled, he’s not. And if he wanted to, say, follow up Joker with a sequel to Old School, chances are he’d have studios lining up to make that happen.
Great artists don’t complain about how they can’t make the movies they want anymore because times have changed. Instead, they learn to adapt. Martin Scorsese, the director from whom just about every one of the core ideas in Phillips’ last two movies (War Dogs and Joker) was lifted, has been doing that since the early ’70s.