If “Old School” was a celebration of being a thin-skulled dude, then “The Hangover” is practically a deification of bad behavior, a comedy that is long on laughs and mercifully free of plot mechanics featuring three very strong comic leads playing off each other beautifully. It’s a gleefully dirty film, unafraid to do almost anything for a laugh, and it’s silly. It is not a film of consequence. It is not “about” anything. And it is going to be a huge, huge hit.
Jon Lucas & Scott Moore, credited writers of the film, also wrote another of the summer movies Warner released this year, and it’s weird how I had an almost chemical aversion to that other film, “The Ghosts Of Girlfriends Past.” Just the title started the piss-shivers for me, and the trailer made me black out six or seven times from the sheer horror of it. Maybe it’s the difference between an annoyingly high concept and the pure simplicity of the set-up for “The Hangover.” Or maybe it’s what happens when Todd Phillips signs on and totally reworks something from the ground up with his own uncredited writers. That’d be my guess.
Doug (Justin Bartha) is getting married, and he decides to go to Vegas with his two best friends, Stu (Ed Helms) and Phil (Bradley Cooper) for his bachelor party. They take along Alan (Zach Galifianakis), Doug’s soon-to-be brother-in-law, and they plan some standard-issue debauchery. After a toast of Jagermeister on the roof of their hotel, they head downstairs to party… and the film jumps forward to the morning after, as Stu, Phil, and Alan wake up in a destroyed suite, Doug nowhere to be found, and without any memory of how a tiger ended up in their bathroom and a baby ended up in their closet. The film is structured almost like a mystery, as they have to trace their steps and figure out what happened to them, why they can’t remember, and where the hell the groom is, hopefully in time to get him home for his own wedding.
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One of my pet peeves when watching a comedy, and something I’ve just learned to accept because everyone does it, is when the comedy has to stop being funny around the end of act two so it can wrap up all the “plot.” It can be deadly, too, just killing the momentum of a film. Todd Phillips (who has 9,000,000 films indevelopment, if IMDb is to be trusted) seems to understand that the main reason you would go see a movie like “The Hangover” is to laugh, and he does his best to keep the damn plot out of the way. If given a choice to play an emotional moment or play a laugh in the film, he goes for the laugh every time. And nine times out of ten, those laughs connect.
Ed Helms is developing a very specific comic character that he plays in pretty much everything, a sort of Ivy League grad, sweater-wearing, completely emasculated goofball. He started perfecting it on “The Daily Show,” has polished the act on “The Office,” and here, he brings it to its richest realization so far. He is a git, a boob, a ninny, a dolt. Of course he’s the one who wakes up missing a tooth. Of course he’s the one with the domineering girlfriend who he has to lie to in order to attend the party in the first place. What I like is that they don’t spend too much time redeeming him. These characters are pretty much the same at the end of the film, with only the very bare minimum of growth to show for their hellish escapade. In the case of Phil, a schoolteacher who seems ready to crack, he doesn’t change at all. He’s a shameless womanizing creep at the start of the movie, and he’s exactly the same at the end of the movie. And Bradley Cooper is hilarious in the role. He’s the scumbag who keeps the other friends together, the alpha male here.
And then there’s Zach. I’ve been a fan of Galifianakis as a stand-up for some time now, and I reviewed a film he was in last year called “Visioneers” where I thought his work was very interesting, even if the film was sort of a wank. With this movie, though, I have a feeling that comedy nerds are going to have to adjust to the idea that this cult hero is about to become a mainstream sensation for a while, because this is one of those great comedy supporting roles that seems like it was created for the sole purpose of launching someone into the mainstream consciousness. Alan is a freak, a guy who barely fits into normal social interaction, and he’s only along on the trip because Doug is trying to bond with him before the wedding. Zach plays Alan as a wild animal who has been let off the leash and doesn’t quite realize that he’s free yet. When he turns the crazy all the way up, the film feels genuinely dangerous, and even if it never quite tips over into the comedy apocalypse, there’s always that feeling that it might. That it could. And that Zach is the reason.
The film’s not perfect… there are some strangely undercooked aspects, like the Heather Graham subplot, and Ken Jeong’s character vanishes too quickly… but it doesn’t matter. “The Hangover” wants to make you laugh and it wants to shock you, and it does all of that very well. In a summer where we’re being bombarded by reboots and sequels and remakes, “The Hangover” will end up being a success because it does its own thing, and it does it with an aggressive smile on its face. It features a fresh enough cast that it doesn’t feel like we’ve seen this film 20 times before, and yet it’s one of those films that feels like such an obvous premise that you can’t believe it doesn’t already exist.
Oh… and when you see it, stay till the very end of the closing credits. Because I’m convinced the MPAA did not, and what you’ll see is a first for a studio movie. I can honestly say I’ve never seen that in an R-rated movie before. Ever. Mind? Blown. And that ain’t all.
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