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What stays in Vegas happened in Vegas
by Jason Blair
THE HANGOVER: Directed by Todd Phillips. Written by Jon Lucas and Scott Moore. Cinematography, Lawrence Sher. Music, Christophe Beck. Starring Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, Heather Graham, Justin Bertha, Jeffrey Tambor and Zach Galafianakis. Warner Bros., 2009. R. 100 minutes.
Like a child watching the heavens for rain clouds, I kept waiting for Will Ferrell to show up in The Hangover to ruin my sunny good time. Recently, Ferrell has been making great sucking sounds on par with a Hoover Constellation, his dramatic turn in Stranger than Fiction the one exception worth saving from the dustbin. Todd Phillips, who directs The Hangover, worked with Ferrell in Old School, giving wing to rumors that Ferrell might appear here en route to Phillips’ Old School Dos. Crucially, Phillips resists the impulse to cram the familiar into The Hangover, instead going for the strange, unexpected and totally bizarre. The results, while not consistent, are often hilarious. I haven’t laughed this hard since Superbad, a film The Hangover resembles in its gentle raunchiness, layered characterization and easygoing sensibility.
The Hangover is about a bachelor party so feral that the groom, the easygoing Doug (Justin Bartha), gets misplaced by his three groomsmen. In Doug’s place are a chicken and a tiger, as well as a baby in a closet. Actually, the movie is about the aftermath of the bachelor party: Following the first rooftop shots of Jaegermeister, we speed forward to the next morning, a tidy move by director Phillips to avoid the typical limousine-and-smoke machine clichés. In the morning, the semi-useless groomsmen — handsome but shallow Phil (Bradley Cooper), socially awkward Stu (Ed Helms) and unpredictable, Belushi-esque Alan (Zach Galafianakis) — band together to locate Doug in time for his afternoon nuptials. If only they could remember what happened. If only they didn’t steal that cop car. If only Stu hadn’t gotten married. If only they still had their teeth. If only… Well, you get the idea.
The first third of The Hangover is so chokingly funny that I actually heard people wheezing to catch their breath. In a first-class setup, Phillips establishes his formula for success, which I’d summarize as better comedy through chemistry. Cooper, Helms and Galafianakis are far from A-list actors, but they’ll be working for years on the strength of their crazed, symbiotic performances in The Hangover. The middle third of the film is a procedural section, chronicling the hours the groomsmen spend reconstructing the evening in order to pinpoint Doug. Their efforts sometimes stall or fall flat. Even in the hands of a gifted comedian like Ed Helms, for whom The Hangover is a coming out party, the line “We actually did that?” eventually grows stale. The final act is the big push to rescue Doug and deliver him to his wedding on time, a frenetic series that restores some of the wicked weirdness of the opening scenes of the picture without quite achieving the same level of bellyache. Part road movie, part guy-pal adventure, The Hangover will cure your summer movie headache faster than a spicy bloody Mary with extra pickled beans.