Sunday, June 28, 2009

In Theaters: The Hangover

Hangover poster and IMPAwards link
A common law of comedy is that no bachelor party can ever go well. They are always planned as decadent, orgiastic affairs, but the stripper catches a cold, the booze runs out, and any number of things can go wrong with the porn. The actual party in THE HANGOVER may or may not have gone well, depending on the evidence that the memory-robbed main characters are able to piece together as they hunt down the groom. Needless to say, this is not the most original of comedies, but it compensates for that by being funny, by being well-made, and by being a genuinely engaging story. It pays more attention to actual filmmaking than you would expect, and though you may be thinking that the last thing we needed was yet another male-bonding grossout comedy, strong work can keep a genre fresh after a surprisingly long time.

Doug Billings (Justin Bartha) is getting married, and so his friends- Phil (Bradley Cooper), the henpecked Stu (Ed Helms), and the not-all-there future-brother-in-law Alan (Zach Galifianakis)- drag him to Vegas for a night of carousing. The friends wake up the next morning in a deluxe suite, with a tiger in the bathroom, a baby in the closet, no sign of Doug, and no recall of how things got to this point. They’ve also managed to steal a cop car, and Stu- who was going to propose to his girlfriend later- finds that he’s gotten married to an attractive and friendly escort named Jade (Heather Graham). Not to spoil too much, but they’ve somehow also gotten into trouble with local underworld figures, and also Mike Tyson. And the wedding’s tomorrow, so there’s that.

The fact that I even have to worry about spoilers this time is interesting; the plot of this kind of comedy is usually the least important thing, but here we have an actual mystery, complete with red herrings and what in retrospect is an almost logical answer. It’s genuinely fun to watch the story come into focus, and to see apparently random elements start to come together. It’s a very smartly plotted film, and it’s one that has the power to surprise the viewer now and again.

But THE HANGOVER is also, like all movies in the smart-dumb-guy subgenre of comedy, about its characters and their relationships. We basically have three people who would probably not be friends if not for Doug, and under pressure and without him they start to have trouble. Our three main actors are funny on their own, but they establish a really strong rapport that, though it involves insulting each other frequently, manages to go deeper when it needs to. Graham is also nice to see again; she’s not the most versatile actress, but this is a part she makes believable instead of a stereotype. Mike Tyson’s appearance as himself is amusingly low-key, though I’m not entirely clear on the joke with Ken Jeong’s character.

Nothing in Todd Phillips’ filmography makes you think you’re in the hands of a skilled veteran, but in terms of visuals, editing, and pacing, this is actually tighter than quite a few comedies. At times it comes off as a spoof of Vegas-situated thrillers, with people in trunks, cards being counted, etc., and a weird intensity is maintained through much of the proceedings, however stupid they are. I always appreciate it when filmmakers don’t let genre get in the way of good material, and though this film never stops being a comedy, it doesn’t take that as an excuse to be lazy with the visuals or storytelling.

In short, yes, there have been more than a few for-the-guys comedies lately and THE HANGOVER doesn’t reinvent the genre. But it’s pretty smartly put together, and infectiously funny as a result. It’s a film that’s better than it has any right to be, and those are always great to stumble across.

Written by Jon Lucas and Scott Moore
Directed by Todd Phillips
Grade: A-

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