According to the opening credits, The Hangover is “A Todd Phillips Movie” not “A Todd Phillips Film.” The unusual authorial nomenclature accurately reflects Phillips’s lowbrow intentions: he didn’t set out to make art (bro), he just tried to make something you’d laugh at. To a large degree, he succeeds on both counts. The movie ain’t much to look at, ain’t much to think about, but it did make me laugh on more than one occasion. Last Year at Marienbad it is not, unless my memory is a little fuzzy and Last Year at Marienbad also features a man humping a tiger.
The titular affliction belongs to three men, played by Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, and Zach Galifianakis, who awaken from a debauched night in Las Vegas without any recollection of what took place. Their suite at Caesar’s Palace is inexplicably filled with livestock, half-naked women, a smoldering chair, a tiger, and a human baby, but the fourth member of their party, the groom-to-be of their bachelor party (played by Gigli‘s Justin Bartha) is nowhere to be found. The Hangover shows this foursome arriving in Vegas for a night they vow they “will never forget,” then flashes forward to the following morning when they already have. The three most chemically altered movie detectives since The Dude must sift through their spotty memories to piece together just what the hell happened to them and their missing buddy.
The set-up by screenwriters Jon Lucas and Scott Moore is a good deal cleverer than it needs to be, though the payoff is a good deal cuter than it ought to be. Instead of your standard drunken misadventures, the trio participated in a number of felonious acts and their day-after comeuppance includes a string of believability-challenged shenanigans involving naked Asian gangsters with crowbars, tasers to the face, and even former heavyweight champ Mike Tyson (playing himself). They did so much crap in Vegas that they can’t go five minutes without bumping into someone they don’t remember pissing off. By the tenth time Bradley Cooper has to yell “Wait! We did what?” it’s six times too many.
We’ve seen some of this stuff before, too. As a rule, if at least three people go to Las Vegas to party, at least one of them will end up shotgun married by the end of the trip. Also, a question: why do people in movies who love a priceless old car more than life itself always lend it out to people they don’t trust? Anytime anyone in a movie says the words “I love this car,” they are dooming that vehicle to a tragic fate.
Mildly amusing as The Hangover is throughout, the film almost worked better as a trailer, where jokes like Tyson showing up in their suite and singing along to Phil Collins’s “In the Air Tonight” can live, context-free, as surreal sight gags. Context – flimsy, unlikely context – kills that joke, since once Tyson finishes singing the scene actually continues (and continues and continues) as the former champ tries to reacquire something that the bachelor partiers took from him. For one good chuckle, we’ve got to suffer through yet another a laborious subplot.
The more naturalistic interactions between Cooper, Helms, and Galifianakis are much funnier. The trio’s roles come right out of Old School: Cooper as the Vince Vaughnian carefree leader-slash-wild man, Helms as the uptight Luke Wilsonian square, and Galifianakis as the lovably weird eccentric a la Will Ferrell. If the types are retreads the casting is not, and Galifianakis in particular delivers a memorably bizarre turn as the sort of in-law that makes people rethink their marriage proposals.
With his previous work as the director of Road Trip, Old School, and Starsky & Hutch, Phillips has positioned himself as the John Landis of his generation, had Landis kept making frat-boy variations on Animal House his entire career. In his best moments, Phillips captures the best parts of collegial bromantic camaraderie: the fiendish glee of misadventure, the unbreakable power of male friendship, and the tang of vulgar humor. In his worst moments, he captures the worst parts: occasionally his films are as half-witted and half-baked as his substance-altered protagonists. In the case of The Hangover, he’s made a decent diversion, but no classic; like its heroes you’ll have a good time, then forget most of it when you wake up the following morning. It’s a movie, not a film.