In War Dogs, scumbag whisperer Todd Phillips creates a vivid portrait of a particular era — the early aughts, which also happens to be the era that made him famous, for directing movies like Road Trip (2000), Old School (2003), and The Hangover (2009). He attempts to get at the id of the George W. Bush era, and for the first time since he’s been a sought-after director, to do it in something other than the form of a light, commercial comedy.
Phillips is a multiplex director with an obsessiveness fit for the arthouse. Phillips’ obsession? Men behaving boorishly (mostly white, mostly upper middle class men behaving boorishly, specifically). His output has ranged from the near-classic (Road Trip, Old School) to the nearly unwatchable (The Hangover Part III remains one of the worst movies I’ve ever sat through). But his choice of subject matter has remained remarkably consistent, especially for someone so openly commercial. You normally see his kind of specialization only in academics, at film festivals, among directors who like to project an image, to make their obsessions part of their persona. Not directors who cameo as the “Here for the gangbang” guy from Old School.
Yet from his early documentaries about GG Allin and Frat House (a documentary Phillips co-directed about beyond-the-pale hazing at a SUNY fraternity that depicted Phillips himself being threatened by one of his particularly aggro subjects) through the Hangover movies to now, Todd Phillips has dealt almost exclusively in male misbehavior narratives. Of course, that depiction hasn’t always been especially introspective. What’s varied most from film to film is how much of a happy face he’s chosen to paint on it — whether he’s framed male shittiness as cheeky hijinks, like in Old School, or as dark aberration, like in Frat House.
The market clearly rewards films that tell us “boys will be boys” more than it does films that tell us we might have a problem. It’s been interesting watching Phillips try to navigate that throughout his career, as a guy who at least seems to recognize both sides, the entertainment value and the societal ill. He got crushed, critically, for The Hangover Part II, largely for emphasizing the darkness that had always underpinned The Hangover, had anyone actually been paying attention (…and for lots of other problems, which is why I won’t be defending here). I’ve often gotten the sense that while Phillips understands that a lot of his characters are supposed to be jerks, a large part of his audience, critics, and studios — don’t.
The difficulty of boorish dick narratives is that there’s always a somewhat cathartic, escapist quality to watching film characters discard societal norms, even as they engage in indefensible behavior. I have no problem delighting in the amoral, but it can be hard to feel too good watching a film that says, in essence “Wouldn’t it be great if white guys could act like total pieces of shit all the time with almost no consequences?” Especially when that’s such a frequent storyline†. You could make a case that that’s why Phillips has been less successful (artistically, at least) since 2010 or so. There was a certain moral reckoning that came with the financial crisis.
Characters with a reduced capacity for shame, guilt, morality, and remorse are compelling, and as always, depiction doesn’t equal endorsement. But how often is that totally lost on half the audience? To put it in more concrete terms, how many dipshits idolize Gordon Gekko and simply choose to ignore the part of the story where he’s the villain? Doesn’t knowing that make it a little harder to enjoy The Wolf of Wall Street? Which, though it’s a probably a better movie, like Wall Street, also has a lot of memorable debauchery and an arguably less-memorable satirical “point.”
The classic example of missing the forest for the trees/ignoring the social commentary for the wealth porn is of course Scarface, which depicted a tacky hoodlum in a loveless relationship with a trophy mistress who dies in a hail of bullets. But generations of dipshits nonetheless mistook the character as a sort of Warren Buffet for strivers. Who thought “First chu getta money, then chu getta power” and “I always tell the truth even when I lie” were actually sound pieces of business advice. (Tony Montana’s most poignant social commentary? “You know what capitalism is? Getting f*cked!”).
My friend Joe used to work for Trump University, where his job was essentially to call people, find out how much money they had, and get them to spend it on probably worthless Trump University classes. How much Trump University costed depended largely on how much money they thought you had. His managers there constantly played Ben Affleck’s boardroom scene from Boiler Room (itself an homage to Alec Baldwin’s in Glengarry Glen Ross) as a pump-up jam. Whenever he tried to point out that the entire point of the movie was mocking that way of thinking, he was met with blank stares. I’ve had friends who worked at Merrill Lynch describe much the same thing. In case you doubt any of my personal anecdotes, here’s a post on “The Sales Side: A Community for Salespeople” openly painting the scene as aspirational, a speech that will get you “pumped up to sell!”