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The Hangover (2009)
WARNING: OUTRAGEOUS SPOILERS
“The Hangover” isn’t the funniest movie I’ve seen this year—“Up” is—but it’s got some laughs and a smart structure. Instead of showing us four guys partying wildly in Vegas for a night, it shows us three guys trying to figure out what happened—and where the fourth guy is—the morning after partying wildly in Vegas for a night. It has a purpose, in other words. It gives these guys a goal. It also makes them sympathetic. We see them confused and regretful (and concerned about their friend) rather than rowdy and asinine (and concerned about nothing).
The four friends are types. Stu (Ed Helms) is a henpecked dentist with a shrewish, girlfriend who cheats on him. Phil (Bradley Cooper) is a public school teacher still trying to get by on looks and charm, and still giving off whiffs of asshole. Doug (Justin Bartha) is the bland nice guy who goes missing, and who’s supposed to be married the next day in L.A., making it necessary to find him within a certain timeframe. These guys have been friends for a while, and, though they’re obviously different, they seem like they’ve been friends for a while. There’s a camaraderie there. The conversation and shit-giving during the car ride to Vegas feels comfortable and familiar.
The fourth guy is Alan, Doug’s future brother-in-law, played by comedian Zach Galifianakis, and he’s one of the reasons “Hangover” has such great buzz. He’s not a type. When we first see him—trying on tuxes with Doug—he seems a schlemiel. Then Doug asks him to come along to Vegas with his friends, and he slowly wraps Doug in a long, creepy hug...wearing no pants. He professes discomfort waiting in the car outside Phil’s workplace, because, he says, “I’m not supposed to be within 200 feet of a school.” At a gas station an old man admires his car. Alan tells him not to touch it. Then not to look at it. Then to walk away. Then he calls him out.
So who’s Alan? He’s the guy who does whatever’s necessary to make each situation more uncomfortable. He’s the envelope-pusher. Meaning he’s a lot like the actor playing him. From a profile on Galifianakis in the New York Times last week:
A typical hourlong set might meander from carefully composed, conceptual one-liners à la Steven Wright to profanity-drenched tirades against members of the audience to slapstick to solemnly tacky musical interludes (Galifianakis is an able pianist) to Andy Kaufman-esque attacks on the genre that seem less concerned with eliciting laughs from the crowd than with confounding its notions of what comedy or, for that matter, entertainment ought to be.
Some of the more memorable lines in the film are not only his but truly his. On the ride to Vegas, for example, he talks up card-counting, and, when told it’s illegal, he counters that it’s more frowned-upon than illegal. “Like masturbating on a plane,” he says. The others exchange glances and agree you can’t do that on a plane post-9/11. Alan pauses. “Thanks a lot, bin Laden,” he says.
That’s great, and, according to an interview with Bradley Cooper, it wasn’t in the script. It was all Galifianakis. So is: “I didn’t know they gave out rings at the Holocaust.” So is jerking off the baby. So is the blowjob shots at the end.
More and more comedies, particularly comedies about and for guys, rely on this brand of outrageousness. They’re designed to get buzz. You won’t believe what they did!, etc. Think of the naked scene in “Sarah Marshall,” the blackface and “Simple Jack” storylines in “Tropic Thunder,” almost anything Will Ferrell or Sacha Baron Cohen does. But it means Alan is less character than comedian. He doesn’t make sense.
So on the roof at Caesar’s Palace the four friends toast each other with jagermeister. “To a night the four of us will never forget,” they say. Then they forget. It’s morning, they’re lying on the floor of their suite, while the detritus of the evening’s debauchery is slowly revealed to them and us: a clucking chicken, a smoking chair, a tiger in the bathroom, a baby in the closet. They remember nothing. Stu, the dentist, is missing a tooth. Doug himself is missing.
Sorting it all out, things just get worse. When the valet brings their car it’s a police car. When clues lead them to a Vegas chapel they discover Stu married a stripper named Jade (Heather Graham). When they get their own car back and hear a rumbling in the trunk, they open it expecting Doug; instead they’re attacked by a naked Chinese man (Ken Jeong).
This is where a lot of the humor comes from. We’re watching fairly normal guys reacting to evidence of the outrageousness they, without remembering it, caused.
Unfortunately the filmmakers double down on outrageousness. Visiting a doctor, his patient is an old man with wrinkled, formless skin, and the punchline is his wrinkled, formless ass. Outrageous! The naked Chinese man turns out to be not just a gangster, and not just gay, but flaming. Outrageous! The wedding singer sings inappropriate songs with raunchy lyrics. Outrageous!
But not. Each of these moments stopped the movie cold for me. Maybe it’s necessary to have one designated envelope-pusher per film. Galifianakis here. Everyone else should underplay.
Adventure stories have often been about returning home, and so is this one. Our guys get to the wedding in the nick of time, changed men, their more pungent qualities tempered. Stu is no longer a doormat and Phil seems ready to embrace the role of father and husband. The wedding—the singer notwithstanding—is a sweet scene, as they sit back at the magic hour and reflect on their wild two days. Even if they don’t remember most of it.
June 7, 2009
© 2009 Erik Lundegaard