The Hangover (2009)

The Hangover is the breakout hit of the summer. It’s a simple concept that’s fully executed by Old School director Todd Phillips, the biggest name in the movie is Mike Tyson, and the people are lapping it up. It’s going to become the first comedy to pass the $200 million mark since 2005’s Wedding Crashers. Is it that good? The studio was already planning a sequel before The Hangover was ever released.

Doug (Justin Bartha) is getting married and thus must embark on that last passage of manhood — the bachelor party. Doug and his groomsmen are headed out to Las Vegas for a wild night. Phil (Bradley Cooper) is a handsome science teacher ready to cut loose. Stu (Ed Helms) is a nerdy dentist completely at the command of his icy, domineering girlfriend (Rachael Harris). And then there’s Alan (Zach Galifianakis), Doug’s prospective brother-in-law. Alan is clueless to the point that he asks a hotel clerk if Caesar’s Palace was at one point the emperor’s actual residence. He’s also desperate for some friends and he wants this Vegas trip to be unforgettable. Cut to the next morning and the boys awake to discover their hotel suite in shambles, a tiger in the bedroom, a crying baby on the floor, and Doug is nowhere. Phil, Stu, and Alan have to retrace their steps and fill in the holes of their collective memories.

The central mystery provides surprisingly intriguing glue for all the gags. The idea of Vegas-laden debauchery is practically a cliché of a cliché at this point, especially with how Vegas has been somewhat morphed into a family-friendly Disney Land theme park for adults compared to its mob origins. With that said, the movie hits all the regular Vegas bender exploits you would think it would, which includes, speedy marriage ceremonies, strippers, drugs, gambling. Several of the jokes themselves are somewhat on the cheap side; however, their laugh quotient is elevated by spontaneity and the comic abilities of the cast. The plot to The Hangover is cleverly constructed so that the audience is trying to figure out the latest clues just like the main characters. The movie trades heavily in raunch and crudeness, but this is a comedy that never gets too dark or too mean-spirited; there’s always a playful bemusement at the “What did we do last night?” revelations. Screenwriters Jon Lucas and Scott Moore (Ghosts of Girlfriends Past) are silly about their naughtiness. It doesn’t go to the limits of good taste like Peter Berg’s pitch-black bachelor party gone wrong comedy, Very Bad Things. That movie, which is a guilty pleasure heavy on the guilt, really looked at the hedonist philosophy about “whatever happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” — including murdered hookers buried in the desert. The Hangover actually comes across like some absurdist film noir, and Phillips shoots the movie like it is a film noir. The cinematography even includes watching a car drive into the desert via the reflection of a man’s sunglasses. The movie looks like a serious film noir, a caper filmed in the rarely seen daylight of Vegas, which only makes everything that happens even funnier.

The Hangover is consistently funny once the boys get to Vegas. Beforehand it’s all setup, and generally setups are not that funny because they lay ground for the punchlines to come later. There are well-executed running gags and then there are also missed opportunities, like the baby and the surprise wedding. Certainly a newly discovered baby offers better gags than miming the little fella masturbating. The jokes themselves aren’t terribly sophisticated (hence: male nudity = laughs, taser to the balls = bigger laughs) and plot revelations, like how Stu lost his tooth, can be letdowns. The screenplay speeds through its comic setups too quickly, briskly running to the next and leaving little room to settle. A healthy dose of the adolescent humor is unmemorable from other crass-fests, but the setups allow the actors to bounce off each other for better jokes. The best laughs come from the threesome of dudes just ping-ponging back and forth in the moment. The end credits finally reveal what really happened that debased night, and the montage of pictures serves as a meaty, satisfying payoff to 90 minutes of sophomoric setup. It’s a terrific way to get the audience laughing all the way to the parking lot.

The humor is mostly situation based. The characters all fall under comedy archetypes (henpecked husband, loudmouth, socially inept doofus) but it’s the interaction and male camaraderie between the actors that made me smile the most. Cooper (He’s Just Not That Into You) is full of smarm but he comes across like a less manic, still self-absorbed and obnoxious version of his jerky character from Wedding Crashers. His main job is to center the other two actors. Galifianakis (The Comedians of Comedy) is the go-to source for the screenplay’s laughs and his role makes good use of his talents. He plays a buffoon without an ounce of self-awareness, which gives the character a touch of sweetness even as he bumbles in total social awkwardness. He plays the character straight and innocent, which makes his moony behavior more unnerving and yet acceptable at the same time. But for me, this is Helms’ movie. The supporting actor from TV’s The Office has honed comedic chops, which explains how he can find the perfect tone for an uptight, hopeless, delusional dentist to be sympathetic and not overly pathetic. He comes completely undone over the course of the film’s events and Helms bounces off the walls in hysterics.

Like other Phillips movies, specifically Old School, the women not only get shortchanged as comedy characters but they are presented in an unflattering light. Essentially, the women are either vicious, soul-sucking shrews or exploitative whores. It’s not exactly an enlightened atmosphere but then again The Hangover is a vulgar comedy set in Sin City. The nicest female character is portrayed by Heather Graham (Boogie Nights) as a breastfeeding prostitute (“I’m a stripper. Well, I’m an escort but stripping is a great way to meet the clients.”). I’m not asking for every comedy to be written from a feminist standpoint, but it’s disconcerting when the women in a comedy only get to be the jokes instead of being in on the jokes. The extremely flamboyant, overripe gay Asian mobster (Ken Jeong of Role Models) ensures that women aren’t alone in getting marginalized for giggles.

Let’s face it; once you know the solution to the mystery and all the surprises, will this movie still play out as funny? I think perhaps Phillips has crafted a comedic version of The Game, David Fincher’s 1997 thriller that plucked Michael Douglas into a crazy “what the hell is going on?” trip down the rabbit hole. But once you knew who was behind what, and how the whole game was staged and operated, could you even watch the movie a second time? Would it still work now that a repeat viewer knew all the secrets? Does this comedy have a built-in expiration date? I think The Hangover will lose some of its appeal once the surprises are all out in the open, but I think the chemistry of the cast and some of the riffs on Vegas will still earn chuckles even on multiple viewings. This isn’t the instant classic that its rapid grosses and frothing word-of-mouth might have you believe, but The Hangover is an enjoyable guys-gone-wild trip down the empty road of Vegas hedonism.

Nate’s Grade: B

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About natezoebl

One man. Many movies. I am a cinephile (which spell-check suggests should really be "epinephine"). I was told that a passion for movies was in his blood since I was conceived at a movie convention. While scientifically questionable, I do remember a childhood where I would wake up Saturday mornings, bounce on my parents' bed, and watch Siskel and Ebert's syndicated TV show. That doesn't seem normal. At age 17, I began writing movie reviews and have been unable to stop ever since. I was the co-founder and chief editor at PictureShowPundits.com (2007-2014) and now write freelance. I have over 1400 written film reviews to my name and counting. I am also a proud member of the Central Ohio Film Critics Association (COFCA) since 2012. In my (dwindling) free time, I like to write uncontrollably. I wrote a theatrical genre mash-up adaptation titled "Our Town... Attacked by Zombies" that was staged at my alma mater, Capital University in the fall of 2010 with minimal causalities and zero lawsuits. I have also written or co-written sixteen screenplays and pilots, with one of those scripts reviewed on industry blog Script Shadow. Thanks to the positive exposure, I am now also dipping my toes into the very industry I've been obsessed over since I was yea-high to whatever people are yea-high to in comparisons.

Posted on May 30, 2009, in 2009 Movies and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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