by Jason McCullum
In my Junior year of high school, my extraordinary English taught me a simple fact that has stuck with me to this day; twice is a coincidence, three times is a pattern. While this was taught to me regarding rhetorical techniques in writing, I tend to feel this way about most mistakes that people make in life, including filmmakers. During the endless stream of quarantine boredom that has haunted us all since March of last year, I viewed War Dogs thanks to a Netflix recommendation. In addition to not enjoying the movie overall, I continually found reasons that the delivery of the story was problematic. It did not surprise me to find out the writer and director of the film was Todd Phillips, the man behind Joker. After taking a brief gaze at his IMDB page, I immediately asked myself: why does Hollywood continue letting him tell these tone-deaf stories?
Pre-2016, Phillips was primarily known for The Hangover trilogy. Upon release, I was too young to ever be allowed to watch the film, especially given the reputation it immediately gained as being an overly sexual and raunchy R-Rated “bro” film. While I have still never taken the dive (and probably never will), a slew of articles published in the last couple of years have brought to my attention, and the attention of others, that most of the jokes made just do not fly today. The douchey frat-bro aesthetic was, supposedly, boundary-pushing in 2009 and is now simply unacceptable in 2021. Regardless, Hangover-era Todd Phillips is not the Todd Phillips I am worried about.
In 2016, Phillips put out War Dogs starring Jonah Hill and Miles Teller. Based on a true story, the film follows two arms dealers selling weapons to the Afghan Army during the Iraq War. It was with this release that Phillips sought to break out as a dramatic director rather than a comedic one. On this front, the film is not that bad, just a bit bland. Neither Hill nor Teller offer anything eccentric to the genre and Phillip’s directorial style is just so… one-dimensional. I mean, haven’t there been enough crime movies that show two guys getting on a plane to Creedence Clearwater Revival? Things only get worse when you seriously consider the morality of the film, or rather the lack of it.
For a little while, the film thinks it is The Big Short, as it attempts to break down a largely celebrated portion of American culture, bringing to light the corruption of the American military. Sadly, this is abandoned very quickly. What follows is Teller and Hill getting rich, committing horrible crimes, and ultimately just behaving in a truly sickening manner without any ill will following. Specifically, on the front of Teller’s character, he has a wife and child that he abandons for months to go get rich in Albania packaging weapons. The punishment? Seven months house arrest while his family forgives him. As mentioned, the film is historical, so I understand the desire to keep the story accurate. However, does Phillips have to glorify the actions of David Packouz (Teller) and Efraim Diveroli (Hill) in such a complementary way? Packouz even gets a cameo. Despite the fascinating story, Phillips makes no effort to give his audience a call to action, rather conveying that the lavish and heavily illegal lifestyle depicted4 on-screen does not come with any serious or long-term repercussions.
Still, I am sure a lot of this sounds like your typical Gen Z’er trying too hard to be “woke”. Plus who am I to judge Phillips for missing the mark on one film by lacking a strong moral compass? Well, his actions on War Dogs would be replicated in his 2019 follow-up, Joker.
What to say about this movie that has not been said before? Well, probably not much, but plenty of things that bear repeating. It is only fair to preface this by saying that Joker is still an incredible character and that Joaquin Phoenix did such an amazing job in the titular role. There is no doubt in my mind that he should meet Robert Pattinson’s Bruce Wayne further down the line in DC’s universe of films. But still, to this day, I truly think Joker is one of the most sloppily put-together films of the 2010s.
The film itself is quite beautiful to look at and just about everybody in the cast does an excellent job in their given role, but Phillips fails to make any sense of the story that is being told. The decision to showcase how unaddressed mental health issues can cause manic behavior is not entirely a failed one. However, Phillips spends the entirety of the movie sympathizing with Arthur Fleck’s murderous mentality, not his mental wellbeing. For instance, Joker ends with Arthur killing a man on live television and then being widely celebrated for the action that he has taken. People do not celebrate his actions because of his inability to control himself, but because he killed a man that many detest due to his upper class standing in the horrifically suffering city of Gotham. Phoenix sells it incredibly well, but it never manages to include the necessary element of painting Arthur as the villain of his own story, not the hero that Gotham needs, the hero that anyone can make themselves into.
Arguably more offensive is Phillips' lack of care for women and people of color in the film. Returning to the climactic murder, Arthur shoots a talk show host portrayed by Robert de Niro, and the vicious attack is shown on a widespread scale to both the real and fictional audiences. However, there are other times in the film that his despicable treatment of people is made up to be less than. Specifically, he murders his mother in a scene where nobody comes to help save her, even though she is in a likely busy hospital. He also kills his Black female doctor at the end, this time with the event not even being shown on screen. The message this sends to viewers is that white male death is [treated seriously] and treated as a great tragedy, while female and Black deaths are hidden, shown as something that comes with ease and can be hidden. Where is the morality in that?
Returning to my initial statement, however, this could just be an odd pattern. Phillips could have made two mistakes and it may not be vindictive of his future as a filmmaker. Except, this theory is easily disproved when considering what film is currently set to follow. Phillips is currently attached to direct a Hulk Hogan biopic which is deeply problematic, to put it delicately. Despite being one of the most infamous and important figures in the history of professional wrestling, Hogan has also been at the forefront of severeal scandals including a sex tape leak and sexual assault allegations. Even worse are his frequent racist actions, most notably comments that occurred in the sex tape, and his declarations that he would not allow his daughter to marry a Black individual. Seeing Hulk Hogan attached as an executive producer on the film makes it highly unlikely any of this will make it on screen, and rather the biopic will show the infamous rise of a kid from Georgia who became a wrestling icon (suppressing an eye roll).
Should this turn out to be the case, what a missed opportunity for Phillips. There are plenty of excellent avenues available to tell an under-the-covers story of Hogan that can celebrate his importance in professional wrestling while also calling him out for his wrongdoing. Brushing all this highly sensitive and grossly important information to the side for cinematic purposes is detestable. The film does not yet have a release date, but in the next couple of years upon its release, Phillips will likely be 3-for-3 with tone-deaf, morality deficient films.
All around, Phillips does not seem like a bad guy or somebody who is intentionally trying to cause any harm, but he should be shooting so much higher with his films. It is one thing to tell a story that strives for escapism without forcing a message, but it is an entirely different thing to avoid a well-hearted message, leaving behind a despicable moral for viewers to run with. Until he can learn to tell stories that are harsh and gritty without containing so many problematic elements, maybe we should not continue to shower him in praise; or, at the very least, refrain from nominating his latest work for Best Picture. Just a thought.