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Brown Tweed Reviews: The Hangover

June 7, 2009

The current comedy audience can, strangely enough, be both a hard one to pin down and an easy one to please. On one hand, if you’re a producer, you can shoot fish in a barrel — filling your film with raunchy set pieces which will allow you to simply sit back and watch the money roll in from a younger crowd. Or you could take a higher road, one where clever construction and attention to plot plays a key in the proceedings and pays off satisfyingly at the film’s conclusion.

Or you could play both sides, which is why Todd Phillips’ The Hangover seems almost genetically engineered to please both audiences. Historically, Phillips has handled things cleverly in the past with hits like Old School and Road Trip, both being secretly clever comedies disguised as goofball laff-fests. The Hangover is no exception. Unless one’s predisposed to hating it upon arrival, there’s a strong chance that most audiences will find something ticklish in the film.

For starters, it features a cast ripe for mining some solid gems. Bradley Cooper’s leading man look belies the fact that he cut his teeth with the gang from MTV’s The State, working with avant garde comedy group Stella and showing up in the underseen Wet Hot American Summer. Ed Helms has steadily grown a following from his appearances on The Daily Show and his current role on The Office, but has, in film, normally been relegated to playing the bit part of the news reporter or office co-worker. And then there’s goofy, strange Zach Galifianakis, who has so far defied mainstream comedy success and gone the road extremely less traveled: art-house-funny.

The three are tied together by a plot I won’t divulge here, suffice to say it includes a bachelor party weekend in which all attendees wake on the following morning with no recollection of the prior evening’s events, and with the groom missing. In fact, I’m so not going into the plotline here that I’ll even give you an additional warning: as the second wave of television ads for the film (featuring exponentially more of the plot) trickle onto your TV, and as friends who’ve seen the movie begin to talk about it, I’d warn you to just turn your head and plug your ears. The Hangover is going to be better experienced the less you know about it.

Since we can’t get into specifics, then, let’s talk generalities. As the trio wakes up post-bachelor party in Las Vegas to find several enigmatic clues to the night’s activities, they set out to piece together their evening and reclaim the bachelor in the few hours before his wedding. If you’re thinking it bears at least a small resemblance to Dude, Where’s My Car?, you’d be right, but it also bears resemblance to the 1950 film noir D.O.A., in which a poisoned Edmund O’Brien, with only a few days to live, has to work backward to track down his killer and the motive behind his murder. So it’s not exactly breakout originality. But while Dude, Where’s My Car? lost its mind trying to explain the inexplicable clues, tanking the film headlong into the ground, The Hangover handles the plot technique more delicately, making sure that (at least most) loose ends are tied up by film’s end, and followed by one of the greatest over-the-credits sequences in recent comic history.

As a neuroses-riddled dentist, Helms shines when he’s finally given something solid to dive into, and Cooper lampoons his own good looks by being a buffoon, but it’s Galifianakis who seems poised to rocket to the top of a lot of lists for his role as man-child brother-in-law Alan. The trio operate as a modern day Marx Brothers as they unravel the mystery and are sent bouncing from one Vegas location to the next.

Flying along at a breakneck pace, The Hangover does make some reaches that don’t pay off completely, but hit most of its targets and, by the film’s final act, the audience arrives with it. And that’s pretty impressive for a 96-minute film with so many random plot components. Along the way, there’s plenty of subtle (and occasionally not-so-subtle) raunch, but its overt sharpness and dexterity is the key to keeping the tight-wire act from crashing down. Sure, it’s raunchy, but it’s smart-raunch.

There are so many ways this movie could have been terrible, to be sure. But Phillips and his stars always seem to be winking and nudging, as if to say “bear with us on this.” The equations work out, and in the end, The Hangover is kind of like a weekend in Vegas itself — a little surreal, all over the place, and virtually impossible not to enjoy.

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  1. 2009: A Pretty Good Year for Movies « The Brown Tweed Society

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