Ever have one of those fits of hysterical laughter, when you’re utterly terrified and yet somehow laughing instead of screaming? I had one of those during The Hangover, when its three main characters returned to their hotel suite and found Mike Tyson waiting for them there, killing time by enthusiastically singing along to Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight.”
The film marks a return to old stomping grounds for director Todd Phillips, who spent the last few years detouring into mainstream comedies like Starsky & Hutch and School for Scoundrels. For better and for worse, though, he’s much more comfortable in unabashed frat-boy humor that celebrates the hormonal antics of overgrown college boys and involves liberal amounts of gratuitous nudity by attractive women and unattractive men. There’s a reason why Road Trip and Old School are more fondly remembered than his PG-13-rated stuff. The Hangover has even more vinegar than those comedies, and even though it misses as often as it hits (a common pattern with Phillips), it’s pretty funny when it does hit.
Like most of Phillips’ movies, this one features an unremarkable plot. Our main characters are troglodytic fat guy Alan (Zach Galifianakis), industrial-strength jerkwad Phil (Bradley Cooper), and Stu (Ed Helms), the whipped boyfriend of a total harpy (Rachael Harris, who’s way too good for a role like this). We know Stu’s an emasculated case, by the way, because he’s wearing a sweater tied around his neck when we first see him. They accompany their friend and groom-to-be Doug (Justin Bartha) on a road trip to Las Vegas for a bachelor’s last fling.
These guys are unpleasant company, but that’s exactly why it’s funny when bad things start happening to them. After a prologue that’s entirely too long, the laughs finally kick in when Alan, Phil, and Stu awake on the floor of their hotel suite with no memory of the previous night and Doug nowhere to be found, less than 24 hours before his wedding. The three spend the rest of the movie frantically searching for him and trying to piece together everything that happened to them by following the leads in their trashed suite, like the hospital bracelet that Phil is wearing, the live tiger in their bathroom, and the baby in their closet. In the course of their ensuing adventures, they get punched by Tyson, tasered by cops for general amusement, and assaulted by a crazed naked guy with a crowbar. They deserve it all, too.
The cast is off their game, which is surprising given how well Phillips’ previous films made use of actors. The sharply handsome Cooper has a sparkling sense of humor that allows him to register even in the fluffiest comedies. Perhaps the pressures of a leading role made him tone down his harsher edges that made him such a blessedly hateful comic villain in Wedding Crashers. Whatever the reason, he’s uncharacteristically bland here. The same goes for Galifianakis, saddled with the role of a moronic sad sack that does him no favors. This portly, bearded stand-up comic has yet to find his groove in film roles. The bespectacled Helms (best known from TV’s The Office) comes off better than his co-stars, though none of the leads wins laughs as consistently as Ken Jeong, playing an effeminate Asian gang boss who turns out to be hunting down our three antiheroes. His trash-talking style almost steals the movie from them.
Like most of Phillips’ movies, this one relates to women not at all. Heather Graham is window dressing as the stripper whom Stu finds himself married to, and their subsequent relationship doesn’t ring true at all. Unusually, however, this Phillips comedy is well-structured by screenwriters Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, who play up the detective-story aspects of their script. (Hard to believe these are the same writers who gave us Ghosts of Girlfriends Past and Four Christmases.) The outbursts of violence manage to be funny while creating a sense of unease that keeps us from growing too comfortable with our main characters’ flaws. The detours to a 24-hour wedding chapel, a police station, and Tyson’s mansion all prove fruitful, and the movie scores laughs with the most random jokes, like the musical montage that we’re given after the three administer sedatives to the tiger and Stu sits down at the piano in their room and composes a song about it while they’re waiting for the drugs to kick in. For all Phillips’ faults, he has a terrific sense of comic timing, and the film even looks good, photographed by Garden State‘s Lawrence Sher. The Hangover never pretends to be anything other than what it is, and, partially for that reason, it carries quite a kick.