The Films of Todd Phillips
Old School (February 18/03)
Old School, which follows three grown men (Luke Wilson's Mitch, Will Ferrell's Frank, and Vince Vaughn's Beanie) as they turn their house into a fraternity, marks director Todd Phillips' first fictional endeavor since Road Trip, and it's immediately clear that the movie, like that 2000 Tom Green comedy, manages to entertain in spite of a distinct lack of overt laughs. To be fair, there are a number of chuckle-worthy sequences here (most notably when Ferrell's oddball character is shot with an animal tranquilizer dart), but this is overall not quite the hilarious piece of work that the marketing materials have been promising. Still, with a cast like this, it's hard to go wrong. Vaughn, in particular, is a lot of fun as the frat guy who never quite grew up. Though he's a successful businessman now, Beanie's still holding onto the ideals he had as a 20-year-old. Vaughn's essentially playing Trent from Swingers, and if nothing else, the film is worth a look just for his performance. Likewise, Wilson and Ferrell are just as good - Ferrell, in particular, gets his first real chance at playing a character (a wacky character, but a character nonetheless) - and the eclectic supporting cast provides surprisingly effective support. Jeremy Piven, playing an almost stereotypically evil Dean, doesn't really get much to do, but his presence is always appreciated. Old School is one of those films that's best enjoyed when viewed with a large, enthusiastic crowd. On the small screen, the film will likely lose some of its raucous energy - although, since the film plays like a prolonged sitcom, it might very well be even more effective on the small screen.
Starsky & Hutch (March 4/04)
The prevailing problem with Starsky & Hutch - which is undeniably entertaining, but little else - is that both Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson are playing variations on characters they've long-since cornered the market in. David Starsky is just the sort of uptight, anal retentive stick-in-the-mud that Stiller's has a lot of success with in films like Meet the Parents and Along Came Polly - while Wilson's Ken Hutchinson is reminiscent of virtually every character in the actor's repertoire (with few exceptions, including his rare dramatic performance in The Minus Man). The movie is presumably quite faithful to the show, as it features the titular duo working a case involving a new scentless strain of cocaine - with the efforts consistently confounded by a nefarious villain named Reese Feldman (Vince Vaughn). Starsky & Hutch's been directed by Todd Phillips, who also helmed Old School, and the two films are certainly on an equal plane in terms of laughs. Though there are a few chuckles to be had - mostly thanks to Vaughn's hilariously over-the-top performance - the film is curiously lacking in the guffaws department. Still, Phillips effectively establishes this '70s world to the point where it's not just a gimmick, though afros and hideous clothes are clearly on display. Along with cinematographer Barry Peterson and composer Theodore Shapiro, Phillips perfectly captures the essence of a made-in-the-'70s production. Though Stiller and Wilson aren't showing us anything new here, there's no denying their chemistry together; the actors play well off each other, which is certainly the most important element in a buddy comedy like this. Cameo appearances by familiar faces such as Chris Penn and Jason Bateman are a lot of fun, while Vaughn steals all his scenes and makes it impossible not to wish the film were called Reese Feldman. Starsky & Hutch is a breezy ride that no doubt will appeal to the same audience that loved Old School, but really, this is the kind of movie that's best enjoyed with lowered expectations.
School for Scoundrels
At a running time of close to two hours, School for Scoundrels is clearly much longer than it has any right to be - although, that being said, there's little doubt that the film remains consistently watchable thanks to Todd Phillips and Scot Armstrong's surprisingly clever screenplay and the uniformly effective performances. Jon Heder stars as Roger, a timid meter maid whose life improves significantly as he begins attending self-help classes overseen by a vicious figure known only as Dr. P (Billy Bob Thornton). Roger's newfound good fortune comes to end end after Dr. P takes an interest in his would-be girlfriend (Jacinda Barrett's Amanda), and the two consequently embark on a campaign of one-upmanship and systematic humiliation. Though he's played his share of misanthropic characters over the last few years (including Bad Santa's Willie and Bad News Bears' Morris), Thornton - to his credit - avoids the temptation to simply regurgitate his past work and instead offers up an entertainingly mean-spirited performance that proves to be the highlight of the film. Director Phillips has wisely peppered the supporting cast with a whole host of funny folks, including Sarah Silverman, David Cross, and Horatio Sanz, and the movie is generally free of the melodramatic elements that sometimes plague comedies of this ilk. There's ultimately no question that School for Scoundrels would've benefited from some judicious editing, but it's equally clear that the movie is just about as entertaining and light-hearted as one might've hoped.
Filmmaker Todd Phillips' impressive run of mediocre yet watchable comedies (ie 2003's Old School, 2006's School for Scoundrels, etc) comes to a decisive halt with The Hangover, as the movie suffers from a variety of problems that are ultimately exacerbated by Phillips' progressively desperate efforts at wringing laughs out of material that could hardly be more tedious. The film - which follows a trio of friends (Bradley Cooper's Phil, Ed Helms' Stu, and Zach Galifianakis' Alan) as they attempt to piece together just what transpired during a pal's drunken bachelor party (where it inevitably becomes clear that said pal has mysteriously vanished) - strikes all of the wrong notes virtually from the get-go, as screenwriters Jon Lucas and Scott Moore offer up a series of broadly-portrayed caricatures that could only exist within just such a low-rent comedy (with Galifianakis' aggressively off-the-wall turn as Alan undoubtedly the most apt example of this). It subsequently becomes increasingly difficult to work up any enthusiasm for the protagonists' ongoing quest at locating their missing buddy (Justin Bartha's Doug), and there's little doubt that the relentlessly episodic sensibilities of the movie's midsection - in which the three friends tediously track down and investigate a myriad of clues relating to their hazy evening - results in an absence of momentum that persists for the remainder of the proceedings. One's efforts at overlooking the film's deficiencies are consistently confounded by the almost total lack of interludes and encounters that are actually funny, with the inclusion of a couple of chuckle-worthy moments within The Hangover's final 10 minutes (ie a hilariously inappropriate wedding singer) coming much too late to make any kind of positive impact.
An uneven yet affable piece of work, Due Date follows harried architect Peter Highman (Robert Downey Jr.) as his ongoing efforts at getting home to his pregnant wife (Michelle Monaghan's Sarah) are consistently foiled - with his companion virtually every step of the way a loud-mouthed struggling actor named Ethan Tremblay (Zach Galifianakis). There's little doubt that Due Date gets off to an almost disastrously underwhelming start, as director Todd Phillips, working from a script cowritten with Alan R. Cohen, Alan Freedland, and Adam Sztykiel, offers up a series of eye-rollingly broad comedic set pieces that are both unfunny and without any basis in reality (ie Peter receives a beating from a wheelchair-bound redneck, Ethan laughs hysterically after Peter tells him a sad story about his father, etc). Even through its more aggressively obnoxious stretches, however, Due Date never quite becomes the unwatchable trainwreck one might've anticipated due primarily to Downey Jr.'s efforts - as the actor turns in an impressively layered performance that is, from start to finish, nothing short of captivating. (And although Galifianakis too often falls back on his ostentatiously off-kilter shtick, the comedian fares much better here than he did in The Hangover and actually does a decent job with the film's dramatic moments.) By the time the movie reaches its surprisingly engrossing final half hour, Due Date has established itself as a passable endeavor that hopefully marks a new phase in Phillips' career.
The Hangover: Part II
Though it hardly seems possible, The Hangover: Part II actually fares worse than its consistently underwhelming predecessor - as the film, for the most part, comes off as a blatant retread that brings virtually nothing new to the table. The storyline follows Bradley Cooper's Phil, Ed Helms' Stu, and Zach Galifianakis' Alan as they arrive in Thailand for Stu's wedding to Lauren (Jamie Chung), with problems ensuing as the three characters wake up in Bangkok after a night of outrageous partying (which, of course, nobody can remember). It's worth noting that The Hangover: Part II gets off to an unexpectedly entertaining start, as the movie is, at the outset, concerned with the easygoing exploits of the central characters - with the affable atmosphere heightened by the palpable chemistry between the three protagonists. It's only as the film inevitably segues into its mystery-oriented midsection that it slowly-but-surely becomes a seriously dull piece of work, as there's simply nothing interesting or intriguing about the gang's ongoing investigation into what happened - with the tediousness of this stretch exacerbated by the unpleasant and downright seedy nature of the movie's locale. (And this is to say nothing of the film's total lack of laughs.) The end result is as needless a contemporary sequel as one can easily recall, and it's ultimately difficult to envision even die-hard fans of the 2009 original walking away satisfied.
The Hangover: Part III
The Hangover series comes to a merciful close with an installment that's at least a slight improvement over its immediate predecessor, with the narrative, thankfully, going in a slightly different direction than the first two films (ie there's no actual hangover this time around). The movie, which follows Phil (Bradley Cooper), Stu (Ed Helms), and Alan (Zach Galifianakis) as they're forced to track down Ken Jeong's nefarious Mr. Chow by a ruthless gangster (John Goodman's Marshall), is actually at its best in its opening half hour, as filmmaker Todd Phillips has infused the proceedings with an affable feel that compensates for the lack of wholeheartedly funny elements. (All three of these films have fared especially poorly in terms of laughs, but The Hangover: Part III's cruel streak, particularly towards animals, ensures that the viewer sits stone-faced throughout.) It's not until the three protagonists embark on their predictably tedious quest that one's interest begins to demonstrably flag, as the narrative follows the formula laid out by the first two films to a progressively tiresome extent - with the familiar atmosphere compounded by an emphasis on lazy, by-the-numbers set pieces (eg the guys break into a Mexican villa to steal a cache of gold). The lifeless vibe persists for much of the movie's overlong running time, and although the return to Vegas towards the end is kind of amusing, The Hangover: Part III has long-since established itself as a predictably pointless closer to a consistently half-baked franchise (ie it's saying something that this is the least objectionable installment in the series).
Inspired by real events, War Dogs follows struggling twentysomething David Packouz (Miles Teller) as he agrees to go into the arms business with an old high school friend (Jonah Hill's Efraim Diveroli) - with problems ensuing after the pair agree to a government contract that's more difficult to fulfill than anticipated. It's clear virtually from the get-go that filmmaker Todd Phillips is looking to transform this true-life tale into a Martin Scorsese-like crime drama, as evidenced by War Dogs' less-than-subtle visuals and almost paint-by-numbers rise-and-fall structure. And yet the film generally remains quite watchable (and occasionally engrossing), with Teller and Hill delivering absolutely captivating performances that elevate the proceedings on an impressively regular basis. (Teller's typically solid work here is often overshadowed by Hill's scene-stealing turn as the larger-than-life Efraim.) Phillips' efforts to transform this rather minor story into an epic motion picture ultimately fall flat, however, and it's increasingly difficult to ignore the slack pacing and proliferation of needless scenes and subplots. (There is, in terms of the latter, an ongoing emphasis on David's relationship with his increasingly weary girlfriend that contributes little to the overall story.) War Dogs does, in the end, fizzle out to a fairly palpable degree and ultimately should've topped out at 90 minutes, with the material's inherently compelling nature compensating for a thoroughly erratic atmosphere.