The older brother of my best friend in high school had a 1972 Monte Carlo with a Chevy big block engine, and when he felt magnanimous he would chauffeur us around on weekends. At low speeds the engine had a distracting stutter, as if about to stall, but once it got above 40 it ran as smooth as silk. Whenever we had to slow for a turn or pull up at a traffic light, the engine threatened to die, but when that Chevy hit the open road with the engine wide open, it felt like we were strapped to a rocketship blasting off for Planet Punani.
The Hangover, director Todd Phillips’ mostly hilarious comedy about a capital-L, capital-W Lost Weekend, is a lot like that car. Fortunately, Phillips has a getaway driver’s lead foot. The movie has a huge, growling heart, and when Phillips punches it in the straight-aways, The Hangover turns into a rumbling, red-eyed demon of a comedy. As long as Phillips doesn’t slow down, The Hangover grooves along like a racecar, but occasionally the story requires a plot transition or a quiet, character-driven moment, and in those moments the movie’s ferocious momentum threatens to leak away. It’s hard to say why that happens, as the characters are engaging and the plot wildly entertaining, but the lulls are infrequent and don’t detract significantly from a hugely entertaining experience.
As The Hangover begins, groomsmen Phil (Bradley Cooper of Wedding Crashers) and Stu (Ed Helms, formerly of “The Daily Show”) make preparations for a Las Vegas bachelor party with groom-to-be Doug (Justin Bartha). At Doug’s insistence, his future brother-in-law Alan (comedian Zach Galafianakis) tags along, despite warnings from Alan’s father (Jeffrey Tambor) about Alan’s gambling problem. Phillips does a good job setting up the characters in the early going, an investment that pays generous comedic dividends later. Blandly good-looking Doug provides the calm, easy-going anchor for cynical Phil, a family man bitter about his marriage and his job, and browbeaten Stu, a meek dentist who’s not even engaged to his girlfriend but already epitomizes the word “cowed.” The addition of Alan, a Moses-bearded oddball with a unique fashion sense, throws a bizarre element into the mix that perfectly fills out the quartet. After checking into their posh Vegas hotel, the four warm up for the party by throwing back a few shots and giving some toasts, and then ….
Cut to the next morning: Phil, Stu, and Alan awaken with a massive hangover, some mysterious physical injuries, and collective amnesia about the prior twelve hours. A search of their suite reveals that they are unexpectedly plus-one in the Bengal tiger, live chicken, and infant child categories but notably down a groom. Tracking a very limited set of clues, they spend the bulk of the movie and generate the biggest portion of The Hangover’s laughs piecing together the events of the prior night and wondering how they came to lose Doug. The structure of The Hangover is a backtracking riddle-solver, but of course the whole point is the hijinks that happen in the unraveling.
When The Hangover is hitting on all cylinders, it rises to a rare level of outrageously funny vulgarity, without relying overmuch on gross-outs or improvisational non-sequiturs. The Hangover functions primarily as a vehicle for ordinary guys flailing their way through an extraordinary situation, getting loads of laughs from the straightforward premise of four men staring fearfully into the toothy maw of a gambol gone horribly awry. The central trio is perfectly cast, with each character carrying enough individual foibles to magnify the ludicrous nature of the circumstances but none so implausible as to distract from the central idea that they’re regular guys. Cooper shows dazzling good looks and nice restraint as the straight man to Helms’ and Galafianakis’ broader turns, losing his Wedding Crashers abrasiveness in favor of a more sophisticated, laid-back demeanor. Galafianakis’ stage persona, a taciturn hermit, makes a clean transition to the big screen with a magnetically weird presence that’s occasionally as dumbfounding for his companions as their predicament.
The most gratifying element of the film, however, is Ed Helms’ performance as Stu the milquetoast dentist, strongly reminiscent of the gawky and achingly sympathetic charm of Steve Carell in The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Helms’ likeable geek provides a stand-in for the audience, around whom The Hangover builds a mountain of material that might come off as offensive in isolation. And The Hangover is supremely inappropriate, in the best way, finding its stride in the unsavory absurdism of grimy, bleary men scorched in the acid bath of a surreal drinking binge. By the end of the film, The Hangover has jiggled its hairy, bare ass through every stereotype in the book, but the theme of the humor plays mostly as a post-Knocked Up wink at the tropes of “just look how outrageous we are!” studio comedies.
A prime example of this is a brazenly over-the-top Asian gangster played by Ken Jeong, who is becoming a scene-stealing fixture in films like Role Models and in TV comedies like “Party Down.” Here, Jeong damn near runs off with the film, delivering a delightfully strange riff as Mr. Chow, a fey, mysterious crime boss who gets tangled up with the boys during their overnight romp. Jeong is by turns elegantly menacing and prancingly ridiculous, adopting a faux Chinese accent that plays less as a straight-on ethnic cliché and more as a parody of clueless comedic stereotypes.
The Hangover’s problems come at the points where the movie has to change direction or tone. The movie is a little weak at the joints, exemplified by the terrible decision to cast Heather Graham in a minor but pivotal role that moves the plot forward from time to time. Graham turns in a perplexing and wholly irrelevant performance as a hooker with a few answers to the boys’ questions, and what’s especially dispiriting is that the role could have added substantial comedic value in the hands of a skilled comic actor like Leslie Mann or Kristen Wiig, possibly propelling a very good movie to greatness. It boggles the mind that someone thought Graham would be helpful here, and every minute she’s on-screen (blissfully only about five) is a minute frittered away. There’s also a jarring side trip involving a trip to a police station that feels tacked on, over-relying on a shopworn taser stunt and wasting a cameo from Helms’ fellow “Daily Show” alum Rob Riggle.
Still and all, Phillips generally captures a strong comedic vibe, and the audience in my screening roared with laughter throughout the film. Without a doubt, The Hangover largely follows the formula for rowdy party movies, not to mention relying heavily on The Four Guy Archetypes of the Apocalypse: Straightforward Everyman (Bartha), Ladies’ Man (Cooper), Nerdy Guy (Helms) and Unabomber (Galafianakis). But that’s not a bad thing — formulas exist for a reason, and formula movies get an undeservedly bad rap because of how studio hacks use them as a crutch instead of spinning good material out of a tried and true concept. With snappy writing and well-drawn characters, a skilled director can build an entertaining movie around a formula, as we saw in last year’s Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Phillips and the writing team of Jon Lucas and Scott Moore throw a wealth of creative twists at the viewer, and even though the occasional misfires are a bit distracting, The Hangover frequently rises to the level of a great comedy, occasionally even flirting with the sublime.
Ted Boynton is a dedicated sot who plans to leave his barstool to stalk Whit Stillman, now that someone has found Whit Stillman. Ted also manages to hold down a job and a wife, three hours each per day, whether they need it or not. Readers may scold, hector, admonish or taunt Ted by e-mailing him at [email protected].