While director Todd Phillips is responsible for some of the most financially successful comedies of all time (Old School, The Hangover and its Thailand-set sequel), his talent didn’t spring full formed, and with the upcoming Blu-ray release of his second film, the 1999 hit Road Trip, one can see the progression of his skills.

In fact, place Road Trip next to The Hangover: Part 2; you won’t find a better comparison of “then” vs. “now.”  The Hangover: Part 2 is Hollywood-sleek and impeccably made, and in my review last year, I noted that “it moves fast and looks like a million (or eighty) bucks…the comedy filmmaker, along with his longtime DP Lawrence Sher, work[s] in [luscious] 2.35:1 scope—a car chase at the start of the third act…looks great and moves as confidently as the chases in Ronin.”

But while Phillips’ aesthetic eye has only become more confident over the years, his humor has gotten more labored.  The second Hangover represents (hopefully) rock bottom.  It brings nothing new to the table that its predecessor didn’t already cover, and there’s a calculated air to the repeat proceedings: give audiences the same exact plot twists and character beats, and then watch the money flow.

Whatever Phillips’ deficiencies were prior to The Hangover: Part 2, he never struck me as one so content with trying so little.  Case in point: Road Trip.  Road Trip is a sloppy, scattershot, intermittently funny picture, but it also has an air of casual abandon.  You can sense Phillips coaxing the viewer along, saying, “Look, if you ignore the bargain-basement set design and sitcom-boring cinematography, then I promise to try my best to make you laugh.  I might not always succeed, but I promise I’ll never stop trying.”

For that regard alone, I’ve always preferred Road Trip to its R-rated inspiration, American Pie, which only had a few comic setpieces (Jason Biggs and the titular pie; Jason Biggs on the internet; Seann William Scott’s “protein” enhanced beer) scattered throughout a lot of so-so teen melodrama.  Road Trip, on the other hand?  We get sex tapes and snake attacks and Andy Dick and violated French Toast and cars exploding and trips to the sperm bank and a whole lot of Tom Green mugging and a pot-and-Viagra-loving-grandfather and a raucous fraternity party and even some taser action, just to spice things up.

These bits don’t all work.  The fraternity party derives a fair chunk of its “humor” from white panic at African-American culture, and the French Toast scene is revolting in a way that There’s Something About Mary‘s “hair gel” gag, for example, was not (Phillips lovingly fetishizes the treatment of the food stuff’s molestation, rather than just tossing it off).  But like the old Airplane movies, the jokes come often.  Through sheer volume, some of them stick.

Better still, they come unannounced.  The Hangover: Part 2 surprises only if you’ve never seen The Hangover 1; if you have, you have a good sense of where the comic stingers wait.  Road Trip has genuine weirdness, which means you get left-field moments like the character arc given to resident horndog Seann William Scott (whose E.L. is practically American Pie‘s Stifler in every way but the name) or the particularly lewd way that Green chooses to convey some otherwise mundane exposition.  For all Phillips’ studied technical virtuosity, nowadays I wonder if he can still shock me, for better or worse.

One thing that The Hangover: Part 2 has over Road Trip, however, is its handling of the main characters.  Both sets of protagonists feature the same archetypes – the Average Joe, the Lovable Scumbag, the Normal Guy Who’s Way Less Normal Than He Thinks, and the Wild Card – but The Hangover has their interplay down to a science.  Phillips learned that the Average Joe adds little to comedy, which is why he sidelined Justin Bartha in both Hangovers.  Pity he didn’t figure this out in 1999; Road Trip sags whenever its two real Bland-os (Breckin Meyer and Paulo Costanzo) dominate the screen.  Bradley Cooper’s Lovable Scumbag has more shadings than Scott’s Stifler redux, as does Ed Helms’ increasingly tormented dentist when compared to D.J. Qualls’ shy nerd (whose virgin act feels like a holdover from an ‘80s sex comedy like Private Resort or Fraternity Vacation).  Best of all is The Hangover‘s Zach Galifianakis, who walks away with the best moments in each film and has an integral role in the narrative, unlike Tom Green, whose big Road Trip moments feel reshoot-tacked-on, and all the better to capitalize on Green’s then-ascending celebrity.

Despite the casting issues, I’ll take Road Trip‘s fumbling intensity over The Hangover: Part 2‘s slick emptiness.  At the end of the day, Road Trip made me laugh.  When you’re judging a comedy, nothing else matters more.

Paramount’s Blu-ray offers both the theatrical cut of the film and an unrated version (with slightly more nudity).  Picture quality is good, not great: Road Trip never looked like The Dark Knight, though, so it’s not a big deal.  Same thing goes for the solid-yet-unspectacular 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track.

Bonus features are few and inconsequential.  We get a short (4 min.) EPK featurette, ten minutes of deleted scenes, an Eels music video, and three trailers.  Nada mucho.

Road Trip remains an intermittently funny ninety minutes.  It’s no Old School (Todd Phillips’ masterpiece), but it certainly bests The Hangover: Part 2, and that’s good enough for me.

The Road Trip Blu-ray is available only at Best Buy beginning May 15th.  Click HERE for the retailer’s listing.

Culture Movie Review: Using ROAD TRIP to Chart Director Todd Phillips' Cinematic Development