How a Raunch-Com Director Became the Scandalous Mastermind of ‘Joker’

Todd Phillips at the "Joker" premiere during the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival.

Source Rodin Eckenroth/Getty

Why you should care

Because the joke may be on those who are taking Joker too seriously.

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Todd Phillips seems a prime candidate to spark outrage and an odd one to inspire fear.

The biography of the Jewish Brooklynite is filled with tropes: a former NYU film school student who dropped out to finish his first film and whose big breaks were fratty classics like Road Trip, Old School and, most notably, The Hangover. Sure, there’s a lot of hand-wringing to be done over such titles, with the glorification of booze, sex and White male entitlement all being easy marks, particularly with a decade’s worth of hindsight. In fact, that’s why Phillips says he stopped making raunch-coms.

“Go try to be funny nowadays with this woke culture,” he told Vanity Fair recently. “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.’”

So maybe the outrage is predictable. But fear? That’s what Phillips, 48, has apparently inspired in legions of Americans — or at least Twitter eggs and TV heads — with his direction of Joker, the coming-of-age tale of a serial killer that has won critical acclaim (a Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, for one) and condemnation (including a letter from the families of the 2012 Aurora movie theater mass shooting asking Warner Bros. to lobby for gun reform and stand against the National Rifle Association). “We want to be clear that we support your right to free speech and free expression,” the families wrote. “But as anyone who has ever seen a comic book movie can tell you: With great power comes great responsibility. That’s why we’re calling on you to use your massive platform and influence to join us in our fight to build safer communities with fewer guns.”

How do I do something irreverent, but fuck comedy?

Todd Phillips

Of course, even with heightened security at theaters around the country, Phillips hasn’t inspired enough fear to keep people from watching his pet project. Joker earned $93.5 million in North American ticket sales over the weekend, breaking October domestic records, and $234 million globally. The tale of a complicated man’s descent into lunacy sells, even if it hits disturbingly close to home. 

“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?’” Phillips told Vanity Fair. Phillips may have thought he was leaving behind offense by switching from comedy to drama, only to find it on his doorstep again.  

Phillips has courted criticism with impressive alacrity throughout his career. Born in Brooklyn and raised in Long Island, Phillips attended NYU and studied documentary because there were fewer kids in the department, “so you actually had a chance to make a film,” as he told adult lifestyle brand SuicideGirls in 2007. His first documentary, Hated, followed GG Allin, chronicling the cultish punk rock frontman’s naked, obscene acts — including shoving a banana up his ass onstage — during his drug-addled descent and untimely death by overdose just days before the documentary’s release. “I never really liked his music,” Phillips said, “but I really understood the show of it, the spectacle of it.” 

 

Phillips’ telling of that spectacle reportedly broke records for sales by a student film, even showing up in a few theaters. And he was just getting started. His second documentary, Frat House, was produced by HBO but never aired because some of its subjects claimed they were paid to reenact key moments (the charge was neither verified nor disproved). A jam band ode to Phish, Bittersweet Motel, prefaced Phillips’ entry into feature films. 

He helped develop Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat, another controversial movie, resigning before the film’s release but nonetheless scooping up an Academy Award nomination for his work on the screenplay. In 2010, Phillips took another chance on himself, forfeiting his salary for an equity stake in an out-of-nowhere film called The Hangover … earning an estimated $75 million. 

One theme uniting it all: Phillips’ fascination with “what happens when you take off the shackles and inhibitions placed on you by society,” says Kevin Jahi Johnson, a film editor in Los Angeles. And so perhaps it’s no surprise that Joker delves into dark themes.

If people fear what they might see in the depths of that reflection, it’s understandable. Industry insiders, including Johnson, suggest that more work could be done to warn viewers of movies depicting graphic violence. “There probably should have been more on either the poster or ads, a small disclaimer that this contains very intense violent content,” Johnson says.

Yet “it’s our responsibility to be responsible, not art’s responsibility,” Johnson adds. It remains deeply human to tell the stories of bizarre — and violent — antiheroes, from Shakespeare’s Macbeth to Keanu Reeves’ John Wick, a comparison Phillips has invited. “You can’t blame movies for a world that is so fucked up that anything can trigger it,” Phillips told Vanity Fair.

Pinning gun violence on video games and movies is a tired trope itself, one that assumes people’s inability to separate fact from fiction and that distracts from the more disturbing root causes of shootings. And to complain that one film could lead to another shooting in a country that has averaged one mass shooting a day this year is a bit like complaining about a passing boat making a rough wave during a hurricane.

So Phillips tells his complicated, controversial story. And it sells.

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