Thursday, May 24, 2018

Theory Thursday: Phil Lord and Chris Miller are Overrated

Welcome to a weekly column called Theory Thursdays, which will be released every Thursday and discuss my "controversial opinion" related to something relative to the week of release. Sometimes it will be birthdays while others is current events or a new film release. Whatever the case may be, this is a personal defense for why I disagree with the general opinion and hope to convince you of the same. While I don't expect you to be on my side, I do hope for a rational argument. After all, film is a subjective medium and this is merely just a theory that can be proven either way. 

Subject: Solo is released in theaters this Friday.
Theory: Phil Lord and Chris Miller are overrated.

Scene from Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs
There's a lot of reasons to be excited for Solo. For starters, it's a new Star Wars movie - and one of the first released during the summer movie season in over a decade. With the story focusing on the origin of fan favorite Han Solo and being played by Alden Ehrenreich, it only raises curiosity of what could possibly be in store. Beyond that, there is one specific thing that most people are wondering: how will it compare knowing its production history? At the moment, it is credited to director Ron Howard, who has had a decent track record over the decades with films like Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind depicting the finest in studio craft. He seems like a natural fit. However, there's one thing that many want to know about: why did the former co-directors on the project, Phil Lord and Chris Miller, leave the project?

Producer Kathleen Kennedy has cited creative differences, and it's probably easy to see why if you see what the film became and what Lord and Miller's general output tends to be. To just cite one of their biggest hits, 21 Jump Street, is to notice that they are more radical than what anyone expecting continuity in tone between The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi, and even the spin-off movie Rogue One would get. They're clever when it comes to deconstruction, servicing comedy almost dissertation of what makes consumerism so infectious. The issue probably is, at its heart, that Solo isn't a movie meant to deconstruct the Star Wars mythos. While it's supposed to give the audience a better sense of their favorite lone ranger, there's just something off in choosing someone so radical from a franchise this staid. You have to find contemporary versions of Howard if you want to make a movie that's fitting with a brand, not those who want to critique every piece of fabric within it.

So while there's a good chance that I could find something to critique about any of the cast members in Solo, it feels too easy. Howard's work has generally been delightful but not exceptional. Ehrenreich is a great actor who doesn't have much to argue against. Even Donald Glover's career seems lacking in controversial opinions (watch Atlanta, people). So instead I turn to something that I'm sure I've made clear before but I feel still isolates me from the general public. I'm not one of those who came to Solo hoping that Lord and Miller would've made an incredible film. Sure, I'd watch and hope that this was a great experience but... I don't honestly think that their reputation is something I agree with. They're considered modern prodigies of studio comedies like 21 Jump Street, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, and The LEGO Movie. They're hailed as modern masterpieces to differing extents. However, I disagree wholeheartedly.

I wish I could understand at the heart of the issue why I roll my eyes, but I should just get to the heart of the issue. I can't stand their type of comedy and in some way believe that it lead to the decline of studio movies. I'll accept 21 Jump Street as being quasi-innovative, but I think its sequel is insufferable and lead to the terrible trend of "pointless reboots." These aren't reboots just making movies to introduce characters to a new generation. No, films like Baywatch and C.H.I.P.'s are just two examples of studio comedies mistaking the Lord and Miller formula for crass nudging. It's funny because of how dated a 20-year-old show is, and how audiences today wouldn't care if the best possible version of the film could be made. Yes, this isn't an issue to them specifically, but they started it. By 22 Jump Street, it felt less like a movie where they played with tropes and more sat in a director's chair and stared at the camera, pointing out how dumb sequels are and how poorly casting 30-year-olds as teenagers can be funny. Yes, the movie wants you to believe that consumerism is funny when played to harsh extremes. Also, it thinks that acting super dumb can be smart, and it all creates a vicious circle of pointless self-indulgence.

Another example comes in the pacing found in The LEGO Movie, which I wish I could love more. While it's easy to blame for another trend of consumerism-as-commentary, I think the film embodies another issue with the Lord and Miller style. It's not so much that they're smart underneath a dim texture, but more that they're too manic and eager to please. There's a need for there to be a joke a second, or the film would begin to lose faith in itself. It tries to get by on clever wordplay and gags that only work because LEGO as a brand has infinite possibilities. However, I argue that it offers too many possibilities and inevitably feels like a scattered mess. It probably appeals to kids as brightly colored shapes moving, but it still has an ADHD quality where it bounces so fast that nothing can really resonate. Sure, the themes at the center have something to say, but it has to get through a lot of easy jokes and punchlines that are meant to be cute but can come off as energetic and desperate. They play to the back of the room, and I guess in that sense their ability to make universal comedy works.

I don't consider them to be the bottom of the barrel in terms of directors. There's many that don't have the technical craft that is necessary to make their filmography as tolerable as it could be. However, I think that they're going to be the poster boys for where modern comedy went wrong, even if many of their films will probably be assessed as classics of their time (I see The LEGO Movie in particular fitting that). Still, they're so much about deconstructing themselves that they fail to be interesting movies at their center. They want to be clever, suggesting that products are at their heart ridiculous. Sure, toys and reboots are that. I think it's why Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs is their most tolerable film. It's the only one that doesn't spend its entire time winking. It tries to be creative with its gags. 

I'm sure that the Lord and Miller version of Solo would've been an interesting film. However, I think it would've also been too much a Lord and Miller film to please everyone. Star Wars has come under fire for being divisive with The Last Jedi (I come down on the side of enjoying it), but a Solo that had the mentality of a 21 Jump Street feels like it would've been frustrating to those not wanting Han Solo to be a character who critiques why the Millennium Falcon looks the way it does and has so many odd compartments and passageways. It would've been a change of pace, but it still would've been as reverent to the source material as 21 Jump Street was to the original series, which is not really. To me, there's something insulting even under their love of making those type of movies. It suggests the pointlessness of pop culture in a way that discredits effort and adoring fans. It may be seen as brilliant rebellion, but it eventually feels lazy because it's just a name, not a story.

Sure, Deadpool can easily be blamed for leading to the recent style of comedy. It goes further than Lord and Miller by actually talking to the camera. I think the trend in general is neither of their faults, though they embody a more polished version of something that was maligned only 15 years ago with the Friedberg and Seltzer movies. True, their jokes were base-level name recognition with easy slapstick, but how is that different from Lord and Miller making an entire scene in 22 Jump Street where Channing Tatum gives a detailed account of what a "meet cute" is while doing it? Lord and Miller are better directors for sure, but what will their films look like in 15 years? I think that 21 Jump Street is so on the nose that it probably will age horribly, serving more as an example of how comedy enjoyed deconstructing itself. I'd say the same for Deadpool and its sequel - even if it may be a flat-out masterpiece. They're products of their time, no matter how much they want to make fun of products of their time style of humor, which is just obnoxious.

I'll be honest that I don't hate Lord and Miller with a passion. However, I never come away from their movies with that engagement that most people have. With exception to 22 Jump Street, they haven't made a film that I flat out hate. In fact, I'd argue that their TV work tends to be better, especially The Last Man on Earth, if just because it requires them to be less reliant on tropes and cinematic contrivances. I think that part of the reason I'm so critical of them is because in some ways I am a fan of meta humor on a very personal level. They're no Dan Harmon, whose work on Community or Rick and Morty far surpasses anything that Lord and Miller ever did (well, 3 out of 6 seasons of Community). It's smart and empathetic on a deeper level that is character-driven. Lord and Miller never felt that way to me, and that is the biggest issue of all. 

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