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How Does Todd Phillips Really Feel About Frat Boy Types?


The continued success of The Hangover has cemented director Todd Phillips, whose previous work includes Road Trip and Old School, as the go-to auteur for frat boy comedy.  While this is accurate enough, as his films are sure to be quoted as keg parties for generations to come, it's pretty extraordinary considering how Phillips's career began.

After completing the well-regarded documentary Hated while still an undergraduate film student at NYU, Phillips won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 1998 for his second documentary, Frat House. While it takes place in a familiar milieu for Phillips and contains some dark humor, the film is actually a pretty scathing expose on hazing rituals in fraternities.  After the big Sundance victory, it was all set to air on HBO when, depending on who you believe, either pressure from subjects' parents and fraternity organizations, or allegations that Phillips and co-director Andrew Gurland staged scenes, dissuaded the network from ever airing it (though somehow you can view it here).

The second article linked to above also offers some key insights as to how and why Phillips made the transition from frat house critic to frat house mainstay.  When asked how the then-new Road Trip fit into his career, Phillips answers that "My career plan is to make movies" and that "Filmmaking is all storytelling to me." More interestingly, his admits that, despite the negative light with which he portrays the subjects of Frat House, he came away with a sort of empathy for them. "Fraternities are very easy targets. It's easy to laugh at a frat guy, but if you really open your mind to it -- I'm not saying it becomes a good idea, but you definitely come away from it with a more well-rounded understanding of the reasons behind it."

Knowing all this, you start to see the reasons behind Phillips's success.  In all of his party-boy films (Road Trip, Old School, and now The Hangover), he manages to have it both ways - to revel in his characters' debauchery, and yet, ever so gently, satirize it.  Notice how his heroes in Old School and The Hangover aren't super-cool hotshots, they're middle-aged everymen trying their darndest to look cool and getting mixed results at best.

Because of this ability to simultaneously celebrate and poke fun at his characters, Phillips's films have appealed to a broad audience.  If they had been too frat-friendly, they might have suffered the fate of the early 90s films of Adam Sandler and Chris Farley, which, despite their cult status, were critically derided and never became crossover hits.  And on the other hand, if Phillips were too harsh toward his party-loving subjects, he'd be antagonizing his core audience.

Of course, you don't need to know any of this to enjoy The Hangover.  It's a pretty funny film, whether you're a fraternity brother or not, and that's probably what Todd Phillips was shooting for.

<--Tim Young

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