The cinematic comedy landscape wasn’t exactly barren in 2009, even for Hollywood’s more mainstream exports. While admittedly male-centric, the legacy of Judd Apatow had recently brought us Superbad and Forgetting Sarah Marshall, two movies which punched surprisingly above their weight. A revolution was not called for, but this didn’t mean that Todd Phillips wasn’t going to try and up the ante. And with a directorial pedigree including Road Trip and Old School, this was always going to go one way.
In The Hangover, we meet 30-something Doug (Justin Bartha), who is about marry into a well-to-do family. To celebrate these impending nuptials, Doug’s new brother-in-law Alan (Zach Galifianakis) and friends Phil (Bradley Cooper) and Stu (Ed Helms) have arranged a jaunt to Las Vegas, one final chance to let it all hang out. Textbook stuff. This loose plan goes awry when the latter three awake after a night of partying to a trashed hotel suite, a live tiger in the bathroom, no memory of the previous evening and worst of all: no Doug. What follows is a skillfully shambolic caper in which the trio have to piece together their movements through the lost hours, repair or avoid as much of their damage as they can, find the groom and – just maybe – get him to the church on time.
So far, it’s a solid premise for a riotous comedy, in the best tradition of watching hapless manchildren with little-to-no self discipline or social skills, wading way out of their depth. And if it all sounds a bit like Dude, Where’s My Car? but for the dads, that’s because it is. And if that sounds like a smug criticism, it isn’t.
That’s not to say The Hangover is an under-appreciated masterpiece, it isn’t. The film is often as troubling as it is amusing (the decade since its original release has served to underline both aspects), yet it manages to pass off both with firm-footed certainty. Phillips’ movie wasn’t the first to feature a self-effacing cast gleefully acting the fool, but The Hangover re-set the bar, even if it didn’t raise it, establishing a new ground-level for all the studio comedies which followed.
Written by Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, the script centres around three unflinchingly flawed characters, and often seems to be engineered to appeal to the worst type of loutish stag-do audience. And yet somehow the audience ends up siding with the protagonists despite these faults (although definitely not because of them), safe in the knowledge that at least our heroes aren’t as ghastly as many who surround them.
First and foremost among these is Galifianakis’ Alan, a lumbering disaster of a man whose behaviour is explained (although not excused) by the heavy handed suggestion that he’s on the autism spectrum. This isn’t played for sympathy, but neither is it mockery. The lasting impression is that Alan is awful mainly because his friends allow him to be. Alan is, after all, the main reason behind the central plot conceit. Galifianakis plays the role well, repeatedly and deliberately provoking the audience with many of the script’s most tasteless moments, but it’s perhaps the part itself which is problematic, rather than the performance.
Elsewhere, Bradley Cooper slips effortlessly into his character of louche high school teacher Phil, who’s looking to turn a profit in the casinos of Vegas using money he’s collected from his students for an upcoming educational trip. Cooper’s turn isn’t particularly standout, but if offsets Galifianakis’ well, as does Ed Helms as the unassuming and put-upon Stu. Justin Bartha is absent for much of his own movie of course, but is solid for the scenes he actually has.
Supporting players cover the gamut of the comedically reliable (Heather Graham, Jeffrey Tambor), the over-excitable (Ken Jeong, Rob Riggle) and the inexplicable (Mike Tyson). But everyone’s committed to the cause and it makes for a great ride.
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Whereas most other works of this ilk aim for an emotional finale to fool an audience into thinking they’ve watched something more worthwhile, The Hangover is perfectly happy to be a throwaway romp. It’s this cinematic shrug which facilitated the second and third chapters following at two-year junctures, neither of which managed to recreate the lightning-in-a-bottle of the original. But we shouldn’t judge a film by its sequels, just the measure of how much fun we have between the opening titles and the closing credits.
The Hangover is nowhere near as rebellious as it would like you to think of course, other than the fact that most of the central characters’ faults and foibles go unresolved by the final reel. Have our heroes learned anything? That’s debatable. But have they at least had an adventure? Undoubtedly. And if we can’t always guarantee the first of those, we can at least hope for the second…