With 2003’s Old School, director Todd Phillips transformed Will Ferrell from an occasionally-funny SNL cast member who had found his way into some mid-level film roles (e.g., over-characterized villains in Austin Powers and Zoolander) into a major comedy star. I can only hope that with his newest film, The Hangover, Phillips has achieved a similar feat with Zach Galifianakis. While the comedian has had minor roles in a few films as of late (What Happens in Vegas…)—as well as being one of the comedic highlights of Largo—this is sure to be his breakout role, as the awkward, hirsute brother-in-law-to-be of Doug (Justin Bartha), whose bachelor party in Vegas leads to the hungover confusion of the film’s title which drives its plot.
The ringleader of the group is Phil (Bradley Cooper), who assumes the Vince Vaughn role of the man looking to escape his boring family life in favor of an excuse to party with “the guys.” They’re also joined by Stu (Ed Helms), who like Luke Wilson in the previous film is a pathetic cuckold with a crazy streak of his own. While the characters and premise here have a lot in common with Old School, though, the manner in which this movie proceeds is a bit less juvenile—though, admittedly, being less juvenile than Old School isn’t exactly a difficult achievement.
After setting up the what (bachelor party) and the where (Vegas) of the main characters’ ambitions, we skip over the how, finding them as they awaken the following day with no recollection of what transpired the night before. There are plenty of clues sprinkled throughout their hotel room (which looks like a scene from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) to get them started on reconstructing their memories of the night before—which becomes imperative when they realize they have no idea where Doug, the bachelor, ended up. The middle act is a cleverly twisted mystery story, with the three guys searching for clues and following leads in an attempt to figure out what happened. This is a fun structure, lending itself well to a lot of jokes of the shocking surprise variety.
As I’ve intimated, Zach Galifianakis largely steals the show. His character has some wonderfully absurd lines, which Galifianakis delivers in a hilariously deadpan manner. He’s not as much of a buffoon as my comparisons to Will Ferrell might make it sound like, instead going for a more subtle form of humor that is nevertheless just as pleasingly crass. Bradley Cooper is as capable a star these days as Luke Wilson is, and his character steers the plot ably. The movie is fearless in its pursuit of comedy, willing to go everywhere and anywhere for a laugh, from baby abuse to a little naked Chinese guy (Ken Jeong, who’s recognizable as the asshole doctor from Knocked Up). There’s also a hilarious cameo from Mike Tyson and some zany hijinks involving a stolen tiger that somehow manage to play a lot more actually-funny than might be expected.
There’s nothing terribly great about this movie, but it’s a solid comedy that knows what it’s going for and has the balls to do whatever it takes to get there. Typically in these types of films the story actually ends up getting in the way of the comedy, but that is pleasantly not the case here for the most part. On the other hand, this means that there is virtually no character development to speak of, and few revelations beyond those that are directly on the surface. I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing, though—the film makes no pretensions to doing anything other than putting its characters in outlandish situations and deriving laughs from them, and it does so pretty well.
I may be overstating one thing: Zach Galifianakis is actually only the second-best thing to appear in this movie. The first is Heather Graham‘s boob. The Hangover is full of pleasant surprises.