Director: Todd Phillips
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, Zach Galifianakis, Heather Graham, Justin Bartha, Jeffrey Tambor, Ken Jeong
Running Time: 100 min.
★★★ (out of ★★★★)
The Hangover takes a great premise that many will undoubtedly relate to and does the most it can with it. Asking the intriguing question of "What happened last night?" the film becomes an engaging comic mystery that avoids cliches, works in some clever little touches and features a few memorable performances. If my reaction seems a bit more lukewarm than the general glowing consensus that's probably just a symptom of having seen way too many comedies. If nothing else, it's at least far more pleasing than director Todd Phillips' own overrated cult comedy Old School, which I thought lazily phoned in a great idea. This is more in line with Road Trip.
If there's a fatal flaw, it would be that the big payoff seems pat and inconsequential considering how good a job is done building toward it. But it isn't trying to reinvent mainstream comedy, just be flat out hilarious, which it is all the way through. I can't say I cared greatly what happened the characters and the plot kind of flies off the rails toward the final act, but I laughed a lot, which is really all that counts. Plus, how often do you get to see Mike Tyson and Heather Graham in the same movie? Or any movie? Much less one of actual quality.
On the eve of his impending wedding, Doug (Justin Bartha) is being taken to Vegas for a bachelor party by best friends Phil (Bradley Cooper) and Stu (Ed Helms) and future brother-in-law, Alan (Zach Galifianakis). The plan is to give Doug one last night of hedonism before heading back the following day to tie the knot. Instead they wake up the next morning with no memory of the previous night and a lot of confounding questions. How did their $4200 suite get wrecked? Why is there a tiger in the bathroom? Whose baby is this? Where's Stu's tooth? Why is he now married to a stripper? Who knew Mike Tyson was such a huge Phil Collins fan? Most importantly, where's Doug? It's that last question that drives the action and send them on a frantic quest to piece together all the clues necessary to find their friend and get him to the altar on time.
The first hour of the film is the strongest, when we know about as much about the crazy scenario as the characters do: Nothing. The excitement of seeing them start to figure things out and the hilarious and unexpected detours that mission takes them on is the big draw here. It's filled with bizarre and uncomfortable moments, made all the more bizarre by the three very distinct personalities of the major players, especially eccentric, bearded slob Alan, who's the type of character you'd imagine being (over) played by Jack Black in a lesser movie. Instead, Galifianakis, long underrated as both an actor and a comedian, suggests a whole history for this guy in a handful of scenes with his off putting comments and creepy behavior, supplying most of the biggest laughs. There's enough reality in the portrayal to make us squirm yet it never crosses that line to the point we can't see the absurd humor in it.
Bradley Cooper is essentially the leading man for most of the picture, doing a good job making cocky jerk Phil (a teacher who hilariously collects cash from his students to fund this trip) somehow come off as likable. Ed Helms' Stu kind of reminded me of an adult version of McLuvin' from Superbad if he grew up to become a dentist (NOT A DOCTOR) whipped by a bitchy, controlling girlfriend (Rachael Harris). As the sweet, innocent stripper Jade, Heather Graham is given her best role in years, which may not being saying much, but it's a perfect fit for her. One of the script's best qualities is how it deftly handles the revelation Stu has awakened now married to this woman and it may not be the end of the world like he thinks it is. I'd even wager I found Stu's entire storyline more involving than anything having to do with the missing groom. Tyson is Tyson, but it works perfectly, and while his actual screen time amounts to slightly more than a cameo, it's a memorable one that delivers. His part is considerably funnier than even the trailers and commercials have teased.
The movie starts to run into trouble when it actually has to deliver on the mystery of what happened to Doug. Had the writers come up with something really inventive to explain what happened to him that matched the hilarity that unfolded up to that point it would have really taken the movie to the next level. Instead, things are wrapped up a little too tidily, even though we're given a classic supporting turn late in the game from Ken Jeong as an effeminate gangster that almost makes up for it. Also, since we're given so little time with Doug at the beginning of the picture and Justin Bartha is bland in just the few scenes he's given, it's difficult to care whether he makes it back for the wedding. In a way though, that's kind of a relief because it frees the movie up to just simply be crass and funny instead of delivering dopey life lessons, an unfortunate symptom that's befallen other testosterone driven comedies lately.
This doesn't seem like the kind of comedy that would hold up that well on a second viewing since it's built around a mystery and once you know how that turns out all that's left are the jokes. And those tend to never play as well the second time around, even for the very best efforts in the genre. You have to wonder if the exact same events of that night just unfolded as they happened without the big question at the center whether anyone would be talking about this movie at the level they are. When you put all the pieces together the whole endeavor does seem ordinary and by-the-numbers in retrospect. That was something that should have been avoided, but at least all the jokes hit and the comic timing clicks. These are characters you like spending time with in a movie you wouldn't mind actually living in for one night. Many probably already have. Where The Hangover really succeeds is in effectively capturing the hilarious uncertainty of that situation.