The Hangover (review)

Arms and Legs Inside the Movie

Surely, whatever tourist board copywriter or marketing guru came up with “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” deserves a cut of the profits of every movie set in Sin City these days. Because they’re all about idiots who appear to take that slogan as a command to engage in the most disgusting, most amoral behavior conceivable, and as a prepurchased absolution for such. As if Vegas weren’t merely a slightly tacky amusement park for grownups who’d like to pretend they’re debauched, and need permission to even think about cutting loose.
The Hangover suffers from precisely that kind of constrained naughtiness: it thinks it’s edgy and envelope-pushing, but there’s nothing terribly risque or dangerous about it, at least not in the kinds of things that ensured it got an R rating. Oh, there’s the brand of nudity that all of sudden Hollywood deems shocking (ie: nonsexual male nakedness intended to be comedic, as if we all don’t know what men’s bodies look like), there’s copious, irresponsible consumption of alcohol and other mind-altering substances, there’s even flirtation with the criminal elements of an urban environment possibly more organized for the benefit of criminals than the law-abiding.

But as with most movies aimed at mainstream audiences, there’s nothing at all to threaten the staid, boring, conventional status quo, which is always infuriating to see in a movie like The Hangover, which does hint at possibilities far more dangerous than it ever dares go near. Just as the Julia Roberts fairy tale Pretty Woman morphed from something, in its script stage, dark and harrowing to, on the screen, something sweet and cheery, this could-have-been foray into either the seamier side of life or the less-than-squalid but more-than-ordinary steers clear of ever getting near the truly treacherous. It’s driving with a seatbelt and airbags five miles over the speed limit — if it had any real balls at all, it’d be doing 90 on a motorcycle, with no helmet.

The script, by Jon Lucas and Scott Moore (who as a team also wrote Ghosts of Girlfriends Past and Four Christmases), is at its most daring in how it is constructed. Four pals head to Vegas for the bachelor party of one of them, and they wake up the next morning in a trashed hotel suite, massively hungover, with no memory of what happened over the previous 12 hours. No memory at all. Oh, and they’ve lost the groom, Doug (Justin Bartha: National Treasure: Book of Secrets, Failure to Launch), and don’t even know where to begin looking for him.

That’s clever: The Hangover is a mystery tale, the guys following up on the few clues they have at hand. Phil (Bradley Cooper: Yes Man, Wedding Crashers), the suave, handsome one, is wearing a hospital bracelet. Stu (Ed Helms: Monsters vs. Aliens, Meet Dave), the dorky dentist, is missing a tooth. Alan (Zach Galifianakis: Into the Wild, Below), the borderline-retarded one, is missing his pants. There’s a tiger in the bathroom and a baby in the closet. How they retrace their doings of the night before is intriguing, in a narrative sense.

But this is a comedy — or it’s meant to be — and as much as I would have loved for the sense of the sinister inherent in this concept to turn into something deeply, blackly funny (I’m thinking of Very Bad Things as a possible precedent for this, but The Hangover is never so audacious), Lucas and Moore and director Todd Phillips (School for Scoundrels, Starsky & Hutch) go for the easy, cheap laughs, things that will shock a juvenile mindset — a mother breastfeeding? gross! a fat old man? gross! — instead of the things that would have unsettled a grownup one. Some are just plain disturbing without being funny: there are multiple intimations, for some reason that’s never clear, that Alan is a pedophile. Why would a doctor examine a patient while three total strangers are in the room? Why is a taser to the testicles “funny”? As if it knows, somewhere deep down, that it’s cheating, the movie has Stu insist, “You can’t just tase people because you think it’s funny,” but the movie does it anyway.

The Hangover’s opening credits run over some very fresh angles on Vegas, showing us sides of the city we don’t usually see. And I got my hopes up: could this possibly dare to not be yet another example of harmless pretend-risk, a roller coaster with padding and safety bars? But no: as soon as those credits wrap up, it’s straight on to the postcard views of the Strip and the seatbelt ride through fake seediness. Yawn.

Watch The Hangover online using LOVEFiLM’s streaming service.

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