Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Review: "The Hangover"

The Hangover

* * 1/2  /  * * * * 

            Three guys wake up in a trashed Las Vegas hotel suite after a bachelor party only to find the groom-to-be missing.  With only a handful of clues available – including a missing tooth and a baby – they must gradually retrace and relive their ultimate evening to find the groom and get him to the altar in time.

            Screenwriters Jon Lucas and Scott Moore set “The Hangover” as a high-concept cross between “Memento” and male bonding comedies, but even with the comedic grace of the film’s ensemble and the measured ability of director Todd Phillips (“Old School”), it’s filled with wasted opportunity.

            The problem with “The Hangover” is that despite its brisk pace and its wacky absence of sturdy reality, its humor feels pigeonholed into quirky racial and sexual stereotypes, while its plot turns feel contrived and obvious.

            As it lunges deeper into an occasionally dazzling deconstruction of masculine assuredness, the film gets farther removed from its own points.  This isn’t to discount the great work of all actors involved: Ed Helms as Stu, a mild-mannered dentist who breaks free of his sexual prison, and Zach Galifianakis as Alan, the groom’s mentally unsound brother-in-law, are highlights.

And yet, their character dimensions quickly grow redundant and tired.  Galifianakis always pushes for creepy eccentricities, and most of his laughs come from out-of-place quips, while nearly all of Helms’ best moments can be seen from miles away, even if he plays them wonderfully.

Any chance to expose the characters as contradictions is skillfully side stepped.  Instead of exploring their behavior, they are given a bland, one-dimensional glorification.

What’s perhaps most confusing and confounding about “The Hangover” is its rather ambivalent stance on the institution of marriage, male bonding, and the woes of alcohol and sex, which seem to be its major thematic preoccupations.

For while alcohol appears to be the cause of the film’s inciting incident, the characters only speak of their altered consciousness with a sense of pleased astonishment that even extends to the people they harm while under the influence.

Similarly, women are usually demonized when they are off-screen as conniving and manipulative, entities that only weaken masculine power.  And yet, getting groom Doug to the altar is the film’s ticking clock, with an ending that affirms the power of the family and of the female’s place in relation to the male (a position that always feels a bit too subservient).

So then, “The Hangover” merely represents a fantastical masculine playground that continually derides and exploits anything that does not conform to these stereotypically quirky white men.

While it does coast on some well-executed set pieces, and Phillips retains his gift for directing his actors in comedic timing and interaction, everything in the piece feels too pronounced and obvious.

Even the film’s end credits sequence of pictures detailing what actually happened feels like an empty exercise based more on convenience, a chance to explicate everything that remained so carefully hinted at throughout.

 “The Hangover” poses as a half-cooked detective romp of men trying to reconcile their free-wheeling independence against a world of responsibilities, but in its inability to criticize the attraction of destruction, its devices become vices, making its humor feels like a sham Vegas marriage.

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