The Hangover

There’s a moment, about a third of the way into The Hangover, when the drolly uncool oaf played by Zach Galifianakis tries to supply his companions with a little context for the adventure they’re having. “…It’s got Ted Danson, and Magnum, P.I., and that Jewish actor…” he starts to say, in a throwaway line, before the pressing action of the scene interrupts him. He never gets to finish his thought. He doesn’t have to.

It is this moment, perhaps more than any other, that holds the key to The Hangover’s excellence.

To understand it will require two things. First, an allowance that the word “excellence” may be used to describe a raunchy comedy about three groomsmen (Bradley Cooper, Galifianakis and Ed Helms) getting so wrecked at a Vegas bachelor party that they lose their memories and their groom (Justin Bartha). Second, the willingness to appreciate a film that makes short work of acknowledging its conceptual similarity to Three Men and a Baby.

There are other movie references in here, too — some obvious, some not, all equally offhand. With its plot-driven mystery, menace and urgency, the whole thing might even be reckoned as a pulp-classic film-noir sort of scenario, except that it’s been retooled for the comedy of dumbassery.

And that’s how The Hangover’s easygoing self-awareness works. It knows perfectly well how cheap it is, and doesn’t let that or anything else slow it down. Nimble, fun, funny, adventurously over the top, and not too tedious or completely lame, it’s almost exactly the opposite of how its own trailer makes it seem. (Either that or Warner Brothers has been slipping roofies into critics’ soft drinks. Not entirely out of the question.)

So, what the hell did happen last night? Where did that chicken come from, or the tiger, or the baby, or the angry naked Asian man (Ken Jeong) in the trunk? Why is the valet bringing around a police car? How did Stu lose a tooth, and gain the favor of a perky stripper (Heather Graham)? What’s become of Doug? No, not Black Doug (Mike Epps); the other one, the guy they came here with, who’s supposed to be getting married — today!

To these questions, perhaps the only satisfactory answer can be a magnanimous reminder from Mike Tyson: “We all do dumb shit when we’re fucked up.”

That, and an outrageous closing-credits slideshow well worth waiting for. Anyway, what a relief and delight to discover that The Hangover doesn’t suck, given its origin as a screenplay by Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, the team responsible most recently for Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, which did. What a difference a good director (Old School’s Todd Phillips) and cast makes.

Being the best big-screen Bradley Cooper vehicle to date may not sound like much, but that’s sort of why it is. This is a man who had begun to register, if at all, as little more than a soulless, low-res Ralph Fiennes facsimile, so he’s an inspired choice to play what one critic wisely called the core trio’s “alpha douche.”

Helms’ buttoned-down dentist, the unlikeliest of bachelor partiers, is just as good, and then of course there’s Galifianakis. As one character observes, possibly on our behalf, “He’s actually kind of funny.” Or, as another puts it later, “It’s funny ’cause he’s fat!”

Well, it is.

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