Plenty can and will be said about this award season’s Golden Globes nominations, but two specific celebrated projects, Joker (from director and co-writer Todd Phillips) and Chernobyl (from showrunner and writer Craig Mazin), stick out to me for one glaring similarity. Prior to these projects, both men were (arguably) best known for their work on The Hangover franchise, and not in a peripheral way. Nope, Phillips directed the entire trilogy about a group of friends doing incredibly stupid stuff during bachelor blowouts in Vegas and Bangkok. On top of helming those shenanigans, Phillips had already led several Frat Pack movies, so those movies weren’t an unexpected outing for him. The same sentiment sort-of goes for Mazin, who wrote the second and third The Hangover installments, which were his followup gigs to two Scary Movie chapters and the related Superhero Movie parody.
None of the prior outings mentioned above would be a predictor for ultra-serious awards material to come, right? Yet that’s exactly what’s happening for Joker, which scored four Globes nods, including Best Director (a move that isn’t without controversy, given that no women were nominated, but that’s an argument for another day). Likewise, Chernobyl claimed four nominations, including Best Miniseries or TV Film. Not only that, but the HBO limited series already won ten Emmys, including a writing award for Mazin and the Outstanding Limited Series award. Both projects are so, so bleak, but my god, what an incredible set of career transformations for both men.
Granted, filmmakers do tend to step outside the box here and there, especially if they got their feet wet as “hired guns” for studios, so to speak. There’s also the reality that The Hangover franchise was wildly successful and opened more doors for those involved. Look at Bradley Cooper, man! He’s an Oscar-nominated actor and director now, and although The Hangover movies don’t count as his first rodeo, there’s where his career took off. The same sort-of goes for both Mazin and Phillips, who solidified their marketable status in a trilogy that featured multiple insane scenes with a naked Ken Jeong. Let’s face it — this trilogy wasn’t intellectual stuff, nor did it aspire to be. And there was an attempt to recapture lightning in a bottle with the sequels, but the audience would have been disappointed if the franchise didn’t follow its own lead.
Admittedly, I’ve also thought about this stuff a bit too much, but the way that the trilogy evolved (or devolved, depending on your standpoint) might be telling. The first movie was a free-for-all, really, and unpredictable as hell, just was wickedly funny stuff. The second movie attempted to up-the-ante on the antics but wielded a grittier edge. And the third movie? Not so much fun at all. It was angry and kinda pathetic and bleak, although it was not nearly as dark as Joker and Chernobyl, that’s for damn sure. Oh, and The Hangover films clearly lacked any relevant commentary like the followup works of both Mazin and Phillips. What they’ve both accomplished this year is breathtaking.
Especially for Mazin, right? Chernobyl probably wasn’t high on a ton of people’s viewing lists when HBO first announced the five-part miniseries. Everyone knew there was no happy ending in sight, but word of mouth built the show up into a sleeper hit that broke a record previously held by Game of Thrones. Although tragic, the series riveted viewers while examining bravery, cowardice, manipulation, and coverups while intimately dramatizing the accident and the heroic sacrifices that went into saving Europe from further catastrophe. Further, Mazin’s incredible attention to detail was astounding.
As for Phillips, Joker was a highly anticipated but ultimately divisive work that, despite controversy, stands as a considerable work of art. It’s a film that’s both, at times, self-loathing and gleefully nihilistic while pushing against comic-book conventions. Phillips set out with $55 million to make an origin story about how some guy named Arthur Fleck — treated terribly by society at large, which inadvertently facilitated his “Joker-ness” — became the greatest supervillain of Gotham, and he emerged with a billion-dollar success. Joker took no shortcuts, and in fact, it was a strenuous effort. No convenient vat of chemical waste served as a shortcut to Fleck’s transformation, and the movie sat outside the DCEU while still prompting plenty of nerd conversations on how much of the story was “real.” And there was a touch of Phillips attempting to insert some canon (the Batman stuff) into a movie that isn’t canon. That was sneaky, but no one could accuse the movie of not provoking thought, even if one isn’t on board with its messages.
What can we take from all of this? Well, the mold-breaking successes of these two The Hangover guys make this year’s awards feel a little insurgent. It’s also important to note that neither Phillips or Mazin visibly questioned whether they could take on their smashingly successful projects. Perhaps there were some moments of self-doubt, sure. That’s only normal, but both men stood up and refused to be limited by their past work, which must have inspired confidence from both Warner Bros. and HBO that they could tell (and oversee) some damn engrossing stories. And although The Hangover films were straight-up popcorn fare, these were stepping stones along an ultimately more exciting path for both creators.
Oh, and although the jump from The Hangover to awards fare might seem extreme, stepping outside the preconceived box isn’t unheard of these days. Look at Jordan Peele, who moved on from his wildly popular Comedy Central series to become a horror visionary with Get Out and Us. Chris Rock went from decades of stand-up, voicing a zebra, and being almost exclusively funny to working on rebooting the Saw franchise and joining Fargo as a kingpin character. And Danny McBride’s all up inside the new Halloween movies. Lest we think that horror’s the only refuge here (because it isn’t), I’m also reminded of astute observations from my colleague, Jason Tabrys, who wrote about Mac’s expectations-busting dance on It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia. Jason argued in favor of defying labels that audiences place onto visionary artists, who want to tell stories with intent and sentiment intact.
In the case of Phillips and Mazin, I’d bet that neither one of them felt stifled by audiences. In fact, moviegoers opened the door for Phillips by halting their thirst for Frat Pack movies and, instead, clamoring for Marvel Studios and DC/Warner Bros. comic book characters. Likewise, the parody movies that Mazin helped write didn’t give him clout, but they gave him an inside edge to make projects that mattered. And so, he tackled one of the worst manmade disasters as a passion project for HBO. These guys moved on from telling tales of literal monkeys on backs and drunken, drugged-up antics to works of art with lasting power. It’s wild and gutsy and all happening at the same time.
All hail The Hangover guys. We’re waiting to see what they can do next.