May 27, 2011 in Features

Mr. Phillips

‘Hangover II’ director embraces his R-rated sensibilities
John Horn Los Angeles Times
 

From left, Bradley Cooper, Ken Jeong, Ed Helms and Zach Galifianakis return for “The Hangover Part II.”
(Full-size photo)

Today in 7

• For reviews of “The Hangover Part II” and the weekend’s other new movies, see today’s 7 pullout.

Like the comedy in his movies, Todd Phillips is unapologetic.

The director of “The Hangover Part II” and its preceding blockbuster has made a mint at the box office by leading his characters to the cliffs of irredeemable iniquity, dangling them over the precipice, then reeling them back to safety just before they plunge into the abyss.

The men in Phillips’ movies have trafficked with hookers, consumed perilous quantities of drugs and alcohol, placed children in peril – and along the way attracted a broad swath of the moviegoing public, not simply the young males who storm theaters showing R-rated raunch.

“Grandmothers came to ‘The Hangover,’ ” Phillips says of his 2009 breakout, among the most successful comedies of all time with a worldwide gross of more than $467 million.

The 40-year-old director calls himself a gambler, and he’s made several big bets with his “Hangover” sequel, including a graphic scene involving a transgendered prostitute and an attempted piece of casting that backfired: asking Mel Gibson to play an expatriate tattoo artist.

In the original film, Phillips – who successfully thrust the unproven Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms and Zach Galifianakis into starring roles – gave former boxer and convicted rapist Mike Tyson a critical cameo that raised few objections.

However, the reaction was swift and strong when he selected Gibson in October. The sequel’s performers and crew threatened not to work with the troubled actor, well before he had pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor spousal battery charge, and Phillips was forced to recast the part.

“I underestimated people’s lack of empathy for somebody struggling with alcoholism or whatever it is he’s struggling with,” the director says of Gibson.

It’s an unusual misreading, because Phillips’ films have succeeded precisely thanks to the empathy his characters generate – even though they behave so badly that the ratings board must certainly ponder the idea of stamping their adventures with an NC-17 rating.

Although “The Hangover” is by far Phillips’ most popular and critically acclaimed film, he has made several other well-received movies about lovable losers, all of whom inevitably embark on some kind of quest.

In 2000’s “Road Trip,” four guys set out to retrieve a pornographic video; in 2003’s “Old School,” three guys set out to reclaim their youth; and in last year’s “Due Date,” two guys set out across the country.

His misfires – 2006’s “School for Scoundrels” and, to a lesser extent, 2004’s “Starsky & Hutch” – were PG-13 comedies that felt geographically and scatologically constrained.

“I’m an R-rated person,” Phillips says. “It’s in my blood.”

In “The Hangover” (which cost $32 million), Phil (Cooper), Stu (Helms) and Alan (Galifianakis) tried to piece together what happened during a catastrophic bachelor party.

The sequel ($78 million) follows the contours of its predecessor quite closely, as Phil, Stu and Alan attempt to figure out exactly what transpired after they landed in Thailand for Stu’s wedding. The trio’s last memory before regaining consciousness in a squalid Bangkok hotel room was attending an innocent beach bonfire.

When they wake up, they can’t find any trace of Stu’s future brother-in-law, the teenage Teddy (Mason Lee), aside from his severed finger. A drug-dealing, cigarette-smoking monkey is running through their room, Stu has a fresh tattoo etched on his face, and his wedding is hours (and hundreds of miles) away.

While the story is similar, “Part II” is materially more dangerous – and sexually more graphic – than the first film.

“I think tonally it’s a much darker movie,” Phillips says. “The stakes are much higher.”

So are his standards. In person, Phillips is brash, someone who relishes his own success and can’t stomach mediocrity in others.

He admits he can be tough on actors, recalling how he once told Galifianakis during shooting of the sequel, “OK, we’re getting 70 percent of Zach today. Can we get 100 percent?”

Phillips also parted ways with Sacha Baron Cohen in the middle of production on “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan,” in part because Cohen feared for his safety after the director asked him to do multiple takes of a particularly dangerous stunt. (Phillips was replaced by Larry Charles.)

Cooper says that while Phillips’ voice is “deeply, deeply demented,” he is nevertheless able to make his characters’ transgressions affecting.

“It’s almost as if you’re watching a therapist or a psychologist tell these stories,” Cooper says. “He is able to unearth these characters’ flaws and you still love them. He’s not afraid of finding comedy in every situation.”

Warner Bros. asked Phillips to start work on “The Hangover Part II” the minute the initial test screening of the first film ended; there already are plans for a third film but no script or start date.

“There’s this huge expectation, and generally, Parts 2 (of film franchises) aren’t successful, except maybe with ‘The Godfather: Part II,’ ” says Dan Goldberg, Phillips’ producing partner. “The downside was, ‘Can we live up to this?’ ”

The larger reality is that “The Hangover Part II” will likely take Phillips’ career worldwide grosses past $1.5 billion and bring Warner Bros. a true comedy franchise.

“Is it a little edgier? For sure,” says studio chief Jeff Robinov. “But it’s all tied to character. It’s not just for shock value. It’s easy to dismiss Todd’s movies. But they really have a lot of layers to them.”


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