A film review by Craig J. Koban


2009, R, 100 mins.


Phil: Bradley Cooper / Stu: Ed Helms / Alan: Zach Galifianakis / Doug: Justin Bartha / Jade: Heather Graham / Sid: Jeffrey Tambor / Mr. Chow: Ken Jeong / Mike Tyson: Himself / Black Doug: Mike Epps

Directed by Todd Phillips / Written by Jon Lucas and Scott Moore

Bachelor parties have become the stuff of age-old movie clichés.  THE HANGOVER, on many levels, does not reinvent the genre's wheel. 

Lets see: we have the typical group of twenty-something fratboy wannabes.  Check.  We have the hedonistic city of lights known as Las Vegas as an alluring backdrop for the heroes' inebriated misadventures.  Check.  We have strippers with a heart of gold.  Check.  We have animals, in some form or another.  Check.  We have the requisite mass binges of drugs and alcohol consumption.  Check.  We have post-party memory loss do to intense intoxication.  Check.  We have a large level of social decorum and responsibility completely abandoned in place of all out debauchery.  Hmmm...make that one a double check. 

Without any hesitation, THE HANGOVER hardly deserves unquestioning accolades (as it has been ubiquitously receiving as of late) as a groundbreaking R-rated comedy.  Far from it.  The premise for the film itself is almost inordinately familiar: a group of four friends hope to travel to Vegas in order to have a kick ass bachelor party without limits or rules, only to wake up the next morning and…not remember a damn thing that transpired the previous night.  One aspect is decidedly different: the groom in question is missing, whose wedding is to occur within a few short hours and hundreds of miles away.  If I was a studio executive and this plot was pitched to me, then I would have grown wearisome and inevitably told the writer that this sounds like a party film on autopilot.

In short: been there, done that.

However, THE HANGOVER is a bit more sly and intriguing in terms of its execution.  Instead of taking the road most traveled approach with this type of scatological material (which would be to show all of the events of the actual party in gratuitous and shamelessly lewd details), the film opts to flash forward past the events of the party altogether.  Remember, this film is called THE HANGOVER, not THE PARTY.  This may initially sound like a disappointing focus for a screen comedy like this, but THE HANGOVER is able to forge some serious hilarity out of the mystery behind the party itself.  It understands that the “party” has been done to literal death in mainstream films, so by essentially leaving it out altogether it allows for the audience buy in that much more.  

The pleasure of the film is that of discovery:  the more we learn about the infamous night that was for these wannabe-swingers – not to mention the more clues we uncover regarding the missing grooms’ whereabouts – the more involved we become.  Yes, this film is unapologetically R-rated (it's filthy minded, unrelentingly potty-mouthed, and shows a predictable disdain for taste on many occasions), but THE HANGOVER triumphantly separates itself from the pack because it does not exist primarily as a mindless, bawdy, f-bomb laden, gross-out-gag-filled spectacle (which…it is to a degree).  This comedy’s strengths are how it creates genuine interest in its story and the silly momentum it generates. 

The plot  - provided by John Lucas and Scott Moore, who proudly stand apart here from their forgettable script for the recent GHOSTS OF GIRLFRIENDS PAST – is told in a fractured and somewhat broken timeline.  The opening sequence actually occurs about two-thirds into the film and then it flashes back to the beginning.  In this introduction we see a middle school teacher named Phil (Bradley Cooper) who is bruised, bloodied, and looks like hell.  He is on his cell phone telling a bride-to-be that her fiancé and his friend, Doug (Justin Bartha) has been…well…misplaced during an outrageous bachelor party the previous night that went from bad to worse.  Joining Phil at this point are the groom's brother, Alan (Zach Galifianakis), and his two other buddies, Stu (Ed Helms), who both look just as battered and weary.  Phil breaks the very, very bad news to the distraught bride that there is no way that her wedding is going to happen as planned. 



The film then flashes back two days before the infamous road trip and bachelor party in Vegas, where we see the groom prepping for his wedding.  Doug, Phil, Ed, and Alan then depart in Doug’s future father-in-law’s prized auto (which, according to the most preordained of all movie car rules, will definitely not come back to him in one piece) to Vegas and proceed to check into a $4200 a night luxury suite.  They decide to put the bill on Ed’s credit card, much to his chagrin, considering that his broadzilla of a wife is an obsessive control freak and would not appreciate seeing a bill like this on his statement (Ed is so intimidated and emotionally manhandled by his girlfriend that he is forced to lie to her about the details of their trip, not to mention that he needs to provide her with hourly updates).  Alan is another problem altogether, seeing as this overweight, sleazy-looking creepo that looks like a “Fat Jesus” has an injunction taking against him stating that he cannot come within 200 feet of children (which makes picking up Phil at his school a bit tricky).  Phil is no better, seeing that he’s the most ethically irresponsible teacher in recent movie history (he pretty much steals money right from under his students' noses to fund the bachelor party trip). 

Anyway, the group checks into the suite and then proceeds to go to the hotel roof for a little celebratory toast with shooters.  Their basic plan is to drink and gamble throughout the night, but fate steps in when the hapless buffoon that is Alan slips what he thinks is ecstasy into their drinks, but it turns out to be roofies.  This has predictable results, because shortly after we see these bachelor party brothers-in-arms toast one another the film flashes forward to the very next morning, when it becomes abundantly clear that the party did not go at all as planned. 

When all of the groomsmen awake they have absolutely no memory of what happened the night before.  The villa that they stayed the night in has been trashed beyond all recognition, which looks like a bombed out wasteland of the past evening’s activities.  Odd problems soon multiple:  There is a tiger in the bathroom, making it difficult for Alan to take a much needed hangover pee, a live chicken is seen strutting through the suite, a baby is found crying in a closet, Stu discovers that he is missing one of his front teeth, Phil finds a hospital band on his wrist, and, worst of all, Doug is no where to be found.  The most agonizing thing is that neither Phil, Alan, or Stu have any memory of what the hell happened to Doug.  Things get really perplexing when Stu finds an ATM receipt for a $800 withdraw and one of them gives their VIP parking pass to the Valet to begin their quest for Doug and the attendant brings a police cruiser to the men and says, “He’s your squad car, officers.”  

I mean…WTF??!! 

The rest of the film precedes much in the same comic nightmare come true territory as, say, Martin Scorsese’s much forgotten, but memorable AFTER HOURS, where the humor often correlates with the dark and macabre mysteries of the underlining story.  Describing in detail what happens next during the men's one-day ordeal of trying to piece together hazy details and discover Doug’s whereabouts would spoil this film’s infectious fun, but let’s just say that it, in no particular order, their trek involves: visiting a wedding chapel, an altercation with Stu’s new wife (don’t ask), a stripper named Jade (Heather Graham), a very chaotic and violent altercation and serious misunderstanding with a small, but aggressively mean spirited, Chinese mobster (a truly inspired Ken Jeong), a face off with the actual cops whose squad car the men now possess, and, rather bizarrely, a hook-up with Mike Tyson (yes, that one), who is revealed to be the actual owner of the tiger that has wound up in their Vegas suite.  Tyson emerges as a somewhat gentle soul in the film: he enjoys lip-syncing and air drumming to “In the Air Tonight”, loves small dogs, and really is fanatical about the safety of his prized tiger.  He gives the men a rather soft spoken, but stern ultimatum: they need to return his tiger back to him.  Their method of seeking the man-hungry beast out of the hotel, undetected by anyone, is rather inspired. 

THE HANGOVER demonstrates an offbeat admiration to its characters, even when they are placed in the most outrageous circumstances and are, let’s face it, all losers in some regards.  One angle I liked about the film is how it did not go out of its way to paint of all of the main characters in a similar light: they all have their individual personality quirks and much of the hearty laughs come at their individual expense.  For example, Stu (played in a letter perfect comic performance of real, teeth clenched anxiety by Helms) is such a whipping boy for his ferociously domineering girlfriend that it becomes doubly hysterical when he discovers that he married Jade in the blur that was the bachelor party night.  He also can’t believe that she is wearing his mother’s Holocaust ring, which he was planning to give to his girlfriend (this leads the idiotic Alan to ask, “I didn’t know they gave out wedding rings at the Holocaust?”).  Alan’s very unparalleled dimwittedness shows no bounds when he reveals to his buddies his plan to win big at the casino blackjack tables in order to pay off that vile tempered Asian mobster.  “Counting cards is not illegal,” he explains, “It’s just frowned upon, like masturbating on an airplane.” 

Much of this film would not work if it were not for the film’s solid comedic performances.  Helms, as stated, brings a real level of inner dread and horror to this everyman schlub who seems more scared of his girlfriend than death itself.  Bradley Cooper does a rather thankless job of blending his hunky, surfer-like, leading man bravado with that of a rather lecherous, cold hearted, but mostly goofy and clumsy leader of the pack.  Ken Jeong, who has been so incredibly hilarious playing bit parts in Judd Apatow’s catalogue and was, most recently, side-splitting as a role-playing addicted man-child in ROLE MODELS, makes his diminutive crowbar waving, obesity-hating mobster an unmitigated laugh riot.  Finally, some special recognition needs to be given Zack Galifianakis, who gives a tour de force, breakout comedy performance her as the slobby, awkward, and nuttier-than-a-fruit-cake dweeb that is Alan.  His performance is just not a string of madcap verbal riffs or sluggish physical comedy: Galifianakis brings a level of wide-eyed earnestness to his otherwise clueless cretin.  Most importantly, Alan is not an entirely comfortable character and certainly not one that anyone would want as a friend, but most of the film’s joviality is primarily earned from him saying or doing things at the most inconvenient moments. 

THE HANGOVER, aside from its smart casting and winning performances, also works successfully for how much wacky and reckless invention it finds it its endless ways to sink its troubled and confused personas deeper and deeper into pits of despair.  The film, as stated, maintains a smutty and brash vibe through and through, but it does not single-handedly rely on raunch and cheap and disposable bathroom gags to win over its audience (like far too many other would-be-uproarious comedies do).  Certainly, the film reaches a bawdy and vulgar crescendo in a knee-slappingly funny end credit sequence – all shown as a picture slide show – of what actually happened to the boys throughout their extremely reckless evening out (which also has a few really scandalous images that seriously earned this film its R rating, if not an NC-17).  Yet, the heart of THE HANGOVER lies with the caginess of its script (which piles on the twists left and right, most of which we don't predict) and its fairly grounded (for the most part) performances, which never degenerate into one-note caricature mode. 

THE HANGOVER has unquestionably been receiving rave critical and audience support since its release: many have labeled it as one of the great watershed screen comedies of the last few years (viewers have astoundingly propelled it to #126 on the IMBD’s TOP 250 FILMS of all time).  However, IMBD rankings have more to do with at-the-moment popular tastes than worth.  Not all of the film works as well as many would lead on.  Some of the film’s gags are limply executed, whereas there are some that fail to generate a smirk (like when Alan mimes a baby performing a lewd act...twice...or when we get a really telegraphed and cheap joke involving breast feeding).  There are also some moments that feel like they are from a whole other comedy altogether (like when two cops encourage a class of pre-teens to taser Alan, Phil, and Stu in the groin and head as pay back for them stealing their police car).  Sometimes, I smiled more than laughed-out-loud throughout THE HANGOVER, which instantly removes it from consideration of legendary cult comedic status.  Yet, the film is funny and smart enough in just the right amounts and represents a solid return to form for director Todd Phillips, who forgot to embody his last film - the feeble-minded and mass audience friendly SCHOOL FOR SCOUNDRELS - with the same jolt of testosterone driven and hard-R rated high jinks that made his OLD SCHOOL and ROAD TRIP such naughty delights.  Alas, Phillips can chalk up another for THE HANGOVER, which frequently revels in juvenile and tasteless extremes, but mostly in agreeable and tolerable ways and never primarily for the soul purpose of being nauseatingly foul. 

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