Movie Review: Desson Thomson on Todd Phillips's 'The Hangover'

Comedy about a group of guys (Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms and Zach Galifianakis) who decide to take their soon-to-be-wed buddy (Justin Bartha) for a last hurrah in Las Vegas, but find that things go horribly wrong. Video by Warner Bros.
By Desson Thomson
Special to the Washington Post
Friday, June 5, 2009

You can spot them at weddings right away. The ones choking to death in their suits. Eyes pinging around the room. Waiting for the nightmare to end.

You know, guys.

Someone has finally felt their pain and made "The Hangover," a comedy that belches mightily -- and amusingly -- in the direction of all those romcoms that seem underwritten by bridal magazines.

Gone is that hushed, tearful reverence for nuptial convention: the ring, the vows and mom's streaming cheeks as dad leads their daughter down the aisle. What's left is a movie dedicated to pure guy panic -- the compulsion to escape all adult responsibility, and enjoy every second on the freedom clock before the inevitable "I do." In other words, "Hangover" is the male un-romcom. To appreciate it is to enjoy the vicarious release of being an utter moral buffoon and getting away with it.

Our stars are four dumpy, dull or deeply flawed men, whose idea of mischief is banal and sleazy. They possess not a scintilla of moral backbone or romantic heroism. There's Doug (Justin Bartha), the handsome but dull groom to be, who agrees to enjoy one last hurrah in Vegas with his friends before tying the knot. After all, whatever happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. That fine city, you see, is the external symbol for male moral compartmentalization. If it happened over there, it didn't "really happen."

Doug's pals include Phil (Bradley Cooper), a married father and teacher who accepts cash payments for A grades from his students; Stu (Ed Helms), a Stepford husband who echoes exactly what his nasty wife (Rachael Harris) tells him to; and Alan (Zach Galifianakis), Doug's brother-in-law-to-be, whose inappropriate impulses and utterances would need a plethora of mental health professionals to mitigate.

But almost as soon as they embark into that good night, all becomes oblivion. They don't remember a thing. Who was the stripper leaving their hotel room early in the morning? How did that live tiger end up in their bathroom? And what the heck happened to Doug? He's nowhere to be found.

As they investigate what happened, their excesses of the night before portend a darker scenario than even they thought possible. There seems to have been a dalliance -- even a quickie marriage -- with a pole dancer (Heather Graham). Police officers are on the scene. Lots of money seems to be owed to the wrong people. And part of their evening may have been spent partying in Mike Tyson's home. They have only another 24 hours to put the pieces together, locate Doug and get back to the wedding alive.

Male immaturity -- in case you haven't seen the last 25 Judd Apatow movies -- would seem to be the screen's most depleted fossil fuel. Yet it remains comedy's most renewable resource. Is it because we learn something new about man's inherent goofiness each time, or because the theaters are packed with the very characters we're watching?

We contend it's the writing. (Made you sit up.) Apatow's uncanny ability to plumb the shallow depths of manhood, and find something touching and interesting, amounts to the equivalent of postmodern alchemy. Even though Apatow has no fingerprints over this movie, "The Hangover" follows in the same surprise-me tradition: It takes us to the dumb side but comes back with something unexpectedly affecting.

In this case, it's the edgy tone. Director Todd Phillips (the guy who gave you Will Ferrell running naked through "Old School") and screenwriters Jon Lucas and Scott Moore shift the crass comedy subgenre into the edgy environs of post-film noir. Sitting through "The Hangover" is like watching "Memento" featuring the Three Stooges.

What makes this "Dude, Where's My Car?" variation so disturbingly compelling is its extreme proximity to the horrible and the tragic. As these hapless fools try to piece together a lost night, forensic clue by clue, the list of crimes and imbroglios they've committed -- without a trace of memory -- gets steadily worse. And we fear a brutal Scorsese movie is about to tear through the walls of this comic plot at any minute. We're waiting for a wiseguy with an acetylene torch and a twisted smile. And we find ourselves choking -- and laughing -- amid the consequences of a guy-centric world gone horribly wrong.

It's a parallel universe in which there are, essentially, two kinds of women: the humorless partners to whom the men are betrothed, and strippers with hearts of gold. And their only way out of this nightmare is return from the proverbial fire back to the frying pan -- back to the noble institution of marriage. Back to civilization and ceremony.

Talk about a punch line.

The Hangover (99 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for pervasive profanity, sexual content including nudity, and some drug material.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company