What happens in Vegas is funnier than expected
About 15 minutes into "The Hangover," the movie arrives at the scene that unquestionably served as the screenwriters' initial inspiration. It's a worst-case-scenario of bachelor party morning-after, and it is howlingly funny. A blow-up doll floats in the Jacuzzi, and a chicken struts through the living room. One of the chairs is on fire. There's a tiger in the bathroom. You don't want to know what's in the closet.
The damning evidence keeps piling up: a hospital bracelet, a missing tooth, a stolen police car, and we still haven't heard the half of it. We're in urban legend territory here. "The Hangover" is about the kind of mythic epic catastrophe frat boys might swear really happened to a bunch of seniors who graduated two years ago. The wreckage might be easily explained, too, if any of the movie's three principals had the slightest memory of what happened.
No such luck: A 12-hour black hole separates them from the night before. The worst part? The groom has gone missing.
The latest in the wave of post-Judd Apatow Bad Lad comedies, "The Hangover" is rowdy, scurrilous, and, for about three-quarters of its running time, a lot more hilarious than it has any right to be. The characters are stock road-movie stereotypes but they're performed with gusto and finesse, and as long as the movie keeps throwing surreal curveballs, we're kept breathlessly off-balance.
The setup is basic. Four friends hit Las Vegas for the proverbial last blast before one of them, the generically handsome Doug (Justin Bartha), gets hitched. We have your raffish alpha-dog stud, Phil (Bradley Cooper), a married schoolteacher who acts like he's still in college; the whiny nerd, Stu (Ed Helms of "The Office"), complete with a nightmare shrew of a girlfriend (Rachael Harris); and the designated wildman, Alan (Zach Galifianakis), the bride's brother and a bearded man-child who suggests John Belushi crossed with Rain Man.
As written by Jon Lucas and Scott Moore and directed by Todd Phillips, "The Hangover" plays out as a sun-drenched comic mystery: What the hell happened and in what order? Daytime being Las Vegas' equivalent of night, oddball characters keep jumping out of the cracks of strip malls and hotel rooms. We meet an emergency room doctor (Matt Walsh) who really has seen it all, and a dishy, exuberant wedding chapel proprietor (Bryan Callen). At one point, a Very Special Guest Star turns up playing himself, and his presence, bizarre as it is, makes no more or less sense than anything else here.
If half the laughs come from that what-next shock, the other half rises from the interplay between unflappable Phil, moaning Stu, and blissfully weird Alan - they're the Three Stooges of wedding comedies. All you have to do is drop the characters into a setting (a police station, say, with an elementary-school tour passing through) and wait for the inevitable combustion. Cooper successfully advances on his quest to be a leading man and Helms is ingratiatingly funny, but Galifianakis is the secret weapon of "The Hangover," delivering scabrously tasteless one-liners - there's one about a grandmother's heirloom ring I can't even repeat - in a beatific daze.
After a while, the question becomes how long the movie can sustain itself and whether the payoff of explanation will be worth the slow build-up of inexplicable events. The answer is: not really. "The Hangover" arguably peaks with the opening of a car trunk, a scene that uncorks the most outrageous of the film's jack-in-the-box belly laughs, and then it slowly loses steam, becoming more ordinary as the pieces come together. More mean-spirited, too, with thin ethnic stereotypes (Mike Epps' drug dealer, Ken Cheong's gay Asian gangsta) and a virgin/whore complex so confused that the virgin (Harris's castrating Tina Fey-look-alike) is more of a whore than the whore (Heather Graham as the sweetest escort in all of Las Vegas).
What's missing is the slap-happy humanism of Apatow bad-boy movies like "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" and "Knocked Up" (or even a non-Apatow project like the recent "I Love You, Man") - a general acknowledgement that everyone's digging their way out of the same mess. But maybe that's too much to expect from the writing team that gave us the shrill knucklehead comedy of "Ghosts of Girlfriends Past" and "Four Christmases." The surprise of "The Hangover" isn't that it eventually hits the wall but that it comes so close to deliriously vaulting over.