In On The Joke: The Films of Phil Lord & Christopher Miller

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A decade ago, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were unheard of in Hollywood. Their beloved but short lived cult classic animated series Clone High had been canceled a year earlier, and their next directing gig wouldn’t come until 2009’s Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs. Now, in 2014, they have become magicians of sorts, turning stale ideas into fresh hits for the studios and have had 2 films dominate their opening weekend at the box office.

You could see their smarts all the way back in Clone High, they were taking familiar faces and putting a different context to them. And after the surprisingly fun and whip-smart Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, Hollywood took notice of these two patron saints of meta filmmaking.

Their type of storytelling can best be exemplified by the protagonist of Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs – Flint Lockwood. In multiple sequences throughout the film he states what he is doing while he is doing it to heighten his reality. The comedy comes through because of the disconnect between how he’s saying it, and how he’s really doing it. There’s a wonderful fresh comedy that comes out of self-mocking, where the audience is not just laughing at the film, they’re laughing with it.

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They were then hired on to direct the big screen adaptation of 21 Jump Street, which was generally considered a stale idea of a film when it was announced. But lo and behold, they delivered a fresh action comedy and with help from the chemistry of stars Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum delivered the film that had me laughing the hardest in the theater that year. A big part that allowed it to break free from the noise of the current studio landscape that leans heavy on reboots/remakes is that it completely acknowledged that it was part of all that right off the bat. In a meeting with Nick Offerman’s Deputy Chief Hardy he rambles on about how the department just wants to reboot old programs from the 80s because they’ve run out of ideas. Sound familiar?

From there it tackles multiple aspects of self-commentary from the acknowledgement that both Hill and Tatum look way too old to be playing high school kids, breaking down the classic binary of jocks/nerds in high school movies all the while fully aware of how silly this film’s premise really is. There’s just something so refreshing about the filmmakers leaning over to you during a movie and whispering: “Yeah we know how ridiculous this is, so let’s just have fun with it.”

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The Lego Movie was a marvel of self-referential filmmaking. The film embraces the fact that it’s a 2-hour commercial for a universally known product. It also embraced the mechanics of the product. The water was made of a bunch of tiny Lego pieces, each explosion was constructed with Legos before your eyes. The Orwellian song “Everything is Awesome” was actually a really fun song that was meant to parody advertisement jingles and ended up successfully becoming one. Just as Lord and Miller played with High School film tropes in 21 Jump Street, they played with “The Chosen One” archetypes throughout. They filled the film with several in-jokes – Batman overplaying the orphan card, Morgan Freeman isn’t just voicing the wise old man, you get the sense this is Morgan Freeman voicing Morgan Freeman voicing the wise old man – but the references are so lovingly, never desperately done that they come off as witty and on-tempo.

22 Jump Street is practically an exercise in meta overkill. They are fully aware that comedy sequels typically just retread the same story from the original without treading much new ground. Acting as a talking metaphor for studio mindsets again, Deputy Chief Hardy gets mad at our duo for a failed mission because they weren’t doing the same thing as they were last time. He sends them back to the program they were in because the department (studio) has flooded all their money into it. There’s a lot of references to getting a larger budget and therefore doing things bigger than before – Dickson’s $800 shoes we can’t even see, outdoing the drug trip sequence from 21 Jump Street  – until Dickson warns them not to spend any more of the department’s budget. Of course that leads to them crashing through expensive sets just to bring home the punchline. Ever mindful of Hollywood’s franchise mindset, Lord and Miller provide a nice reference in the form of a condominium unit coming soon on 23 Jump Street. But of course Lord and Miller aren’t done poking fun at this mentality, with one of the most entertaining ending credit sequences in recent history advertising the next 20-30 Jump Street films with them going undercover in every type of school.

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The meta overkill in the film does get a little overdone – When they see the windowed office of Ice Cube’s character Captain Dickson Jenko remarks that it literally looks like a cube of ice, Channing Tatum even takes a dig at himself for starring in the critical and commercial underwhelmer White House Down – but for the most part is cooked to such enjoyable perfection that you can forgive some of needless moments of pointing out a trope before advancing on it. After a certain point, they don’t need to point out what they’re about to do, they’ve earned our trust to just do it.

Phil Lord and Christopher Miller are now at a point in their careers most filmmakers can only dream of. Having gone 4-4 critically and commercially in their feature films, they now practically have the studios eating out of their hand. They could literally get just about anything they want financed. I really look forward to knowing what that passion project they can blow all their good will on. Because as they acknowledge in 22 Jump Street’s closing credits, you can only take a trick so far. Now is the point in their career where they can try anything and the studios will back it. Nothing is known about what their next project will be besides the rumblings of a Clone High movie, but whatever it is we can trust it will be lively and clever – and probably make a lot of money too.

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