‘The Hangover’: Vegas, baby!

June 4, 2009

We’ve all had that kind of morning after a night of overindulgence. Your eyes barely open, your brain hardly functions, your memory is a blur (or a blank) – and, perhaps, you have some mysterious scrapes and bruises that weren’t there 24 hours earlier.


If you’re lucky, however, your experience is nothing like the four guys at the center of “The Hangover,” the leading contender to be the summer’s breakout comedy. This is a cautionary tale – and a hilarious one, at that.


Not that it’s original in any sense. The bachelor-party-gone-wrong comedy is a staple, with many forebears (as light as “Bachelor Party” with Tom Hanks, as dark as Peter Berg’s “Very Bad Things”). As for comedies about overnight amnesia, the line stretches from Charlie Chaplin’s “City Lights” to “Dude, Where’s My Car?” and beyond.


Yet director Todd Phillips, working from a script by Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, consistently finds sharp comic turns and taboos to goose the film to life whenever it threatens to flag. This isn’t a work of comic genius – but it’s a delightfully broad and bawdy comedy, one that takes familiar tropes and stands them on their ear.


The Vegas-bound crew is a familiar mix. The groom is Doug (Justin Bartha), a sweet fellow marrying a rich girl. Being a nice guy, he includes his brother-in-law-to-be, Alan (Zach Galifianakis), in the festivities, despite the fact that Alan is strangely off-kilter, a loose cannon who still lives with his parents.


Doug’s best friends make up the rest of the quartet. Phil (Bradley Cooper) is the group sharpie, a private-school teacher looking to blow off steam from a job he hates and a marriage he finds confining. Stu (Ed Helms) is the dweeb, a hen-pecked dentist who isn’t even married yet to his overbearing girlfriend (Rachael Harris). Indeed, Stu is so whipped that he’s told her the bachelor party is a wine-tasting excursion to Napa Valley (because she wouldn’t let him go if she knew it was a Vegas debauch).


This kind of comedy is usually a mix-and-match of outlandish situations with any of several outcomes: a misunderstanding that ends in humiliation for someone; a moment of great danger, which is miraculously/hilariously survived; a moment of total absurdity that gets brazened out (successfully or unsuccessfully, in which case the characters flee in fear).


To that lineup, shuffle in such familiar Vegas elements as an unexpected wedding at a quickie chapel; a winning streak at the tables; a run-in with mobsters of one variety or another; an amorous encounter with a stripper/hooker; a destroyed hotel suite – and, of course, overindulgence in various intoxicants to impair judgment. For good measure here, throw in Mike Tyson, a tiger and a baby.


Galifianakis is the actor who’s getting the heat from this film already and his performance is deliciously off-balance and loony. You never know what he’ll say or what odd tone he’ll take; even when it seems obvious, he puts enough spin on his delivery that he’ll make you laugh.


For me, however, the true scene-stealer is Helms, as the sad-sack dentist who wakes up prominently missing an incisor. It’s a loonily real performance fueled by equal parts fear, shame and anger, a comedically combustible combination.


No deep thoughts here – just the kind of raucously vulgar entertainment that every summer needs. Indulge yourself without guilt.


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