Friday, June 5, 2009

Film review: 'The Hangover' is puerile but worth some laughs

Zach Galifianakis, Bradley Cooper and Ed Helms in The Hangover.

By John Thomason

The Hangover is a Todd Phillips movie. Armed with this knowledge, it should be no surprise when a scene featuring an octogenarian in a hospital gown inevitably ends with the gown lifting, revealing the old man’s disgusting, shapeless, flabby derriere.

Cue the ripples of grossed-out “ooohs” from the audience at the advance screening I attended, but really, who should be surprised? Todd Phillips is a master of blunt, self-evident juvenilia – as a later scene shows, he’s still not above hit-in-the-testicles humor, refurbishing that ‘90s comic chestnut using a sadistic policeman’s stun gun.

Phillips is most known for two comedies whose posters, like cups of Ramen and sticks of Axe deodorant, fill every third dorm room interior: the 2003 frat favorite Old School (whose sequel is slated for 2011) and his breakout hit Road Trip, a trashy Tom Green vehicle about a bunch of chauvinist misfits who drive cross-country to conceal the evidence of a college student’s infidelity.

His recent movies, the putrid School for Scoundrels and Starsky & Hutch, were his most impersonal, but with The Hangover, it seems he’s found his stride again, even if that stride remains as puerile as a Jackass sketch.

The Hangover feels like the unofficial sequel to Road Trip, right down to the all-male, road-movie bromance, the hard-R sight gags, the destruction of the boys’ main form of transportation and the will-they-make-it-in-time suspense finale. If it’s funnier than its predecessor, it’s because the characters are a smidge more memorable.

There’s Phil (Bradley Cooper), the misogynistic playboy who acts like and resembles Matthew McConaughey (the film’s two writers also penned the McConaughey romcom Ghosts of Girlfriends Past); Alan (Zach Galifianakis) a slow-witted, all-purpose pervert with a pedophile beard; Stu Price (Ed Helms), a dorky dentist constantly whipped by his girlfriend; and Doug, the boring, soap-opera handsome straight man (Justin Bartha).

It’s Doug’s bachelor party, and his motley crew of buddies is taking him on a routine night of Las Vegas debauchery – until Alan, unbeknownst to the rest of the clan, slips Roofies in their Jaegermeisters, thinking it was ecstasy. Cut to the next morning and Phillips’ most inspired set-piece: The men are unconscious on the floor of their ostentatious suite, which is filled with a beer-can pyramid, a live chicken, a smoking sofa chair, a dangling TV on the snowy fritz, a crying baby, an exiting stripper and, um, Mike Tyson’s tiger.

And Doug is missing, a day before his wedding. Thanks to the Roofies, they have no memory of what transpired or the location of the groom, which propels the comrades to reconstruct the night before. They steal a police car, get on Mike Tyson’s bad side, meet a big-hearted exotic dancer (Heather Graham, gorgeous as ever) and tangle with Chinese gangsters, all in an increasingly ludicrous day’s work in the Todd Phillips universe.

I’m ashamed to say it, but there are some funny sequences here, and even as the story careens far off the tracks of plausibility, there’s a compulsive watchability to the hapless idiots’ plights. Galifianakis makes for an exceptional comic schlub, and Helms, though repeating the same notes he’s been playing for years on The Office, is naturally funny no matter what lines he’s given.

But by the time the boys toss a used condom around their car like a hot potato, it’s clear there’s not a hint of sophistication in Phillips’ comic world. Take the exposed ass of the old-timer in the hospital gown. Other movies, such as Observe and Report and Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story -- heck, even Airplane! -- have used nudity to shock, and are all the funnier because of it.

But here, the gown is lifted exactly when you’d expect, the kid aims right for the guy’s testicles, the sleeping tiger wakes up on cue and the guys’ vehicle crashes into bits just when they’re saying its interior damage “isn’t so bad.”

Phillips has yet to learn the art of fine comic timing, leaving talented performers to flounder in yet another filthy flick for teenagers.

John Thomason is a freelance writer based in South Florida.

THE HANGOVER. Studio: Warner Brothers; Director: Todd Phillips; Cast: Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, Zach Galifianakis, Heather Graham, Justin Bartha, Kim Jeong, Rob Riggle and Jeffrey Tambor; Release date: Today; Venue: Most commercial houses

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