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Monday, December 28, 2009

The Hangover

I once saw what I like to call a medium-there band play in Pomona. At the outset of their set the lead singer strolled on stage and, in a confident, self-assured voice, launched into inspiring origins stories about his songs. He built the anticipation until he was sure that even the bar patrons had their eyes solely on him. Then he played. He sounded like a castrated giraffe fronting for a two-stringed banjo player and a one-armed trashcan banger. He was medium-there, like a pair of socks wrapped in finery on Christmas, full of promise but ultimately disappointing.

The Hangover is the quintessential medium-there movie. The setup is amazing. Three friends (Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, Justin Bartha) and a physically and mentally deficient future brother in law named Alan (Zach Galifanakis) celebrating a bachelor party head to Vegas. After a night they can't remember they wake up in a trashed hotel room with the groom missing but with a tiger and a bawling baby in his place. They head for the relative sanity of the Vegas strip only to realize that they've stolen a cop car and imprisoned a flamboyant Asian craps player in the trunk of the groom's prized Mercedes. The situations are so ridiculous that the seeds of comedy gold have obviously been planted.

Apparently director Todd Phillips didn't have enough sunshine and water to make his ideas fully bloom. Instead, he seems to have compensated with boatloads of fertilizer and grown a movie that is good enough o keep your attention but stinky enough that you really don't want to take it home with you.

A lot of the blame goes to his casting.. As other shock schlockers like Judd Apatow have shown movies like this tend to have an improvisational bent. Therefore you need to have actors that are able to quickly think on their feet. While Helms and Cooper are definitely serviceable they don't really elevate the material to another level. And, when the answers to the hotel room mysteries seem great on paper (the tiger is Mike Tyson's, the baby belongs to a stripper with a heart of gold played by Heather Graham) they never really live up to the insanity of the premise. Tyson's performance drags his subplot down, Graham is barely there and Ken Jeong, who plays the flamboyant Mr. Chow, is much funnier in reality then he is in this movie. On paper these ideas seem far-fetched and potentially hilarious, but in execution they just seem predictable. To the movie's credit there is one inspired casting choice. Stand-up comedian Galifanakis as Alan is nothing short of amazing. He brings an unsettling strangeness to his role – he's a force of unexpected humor, something the rest of the film is sorely lacking. He takes the film out of reality and places it into ridiculousness.

Speaking of reality this movie keeps too close to it. If you can actually see it on a daily basis in Vegas its not really funny enough to carry a movie that takes place in Vegas. Watching The Hangover is akin to watching a remake of A Few Good Men that decides to follow the entire appeals process. Yeah there's a brilliant set-up but watching how things eventually work out is well short of transcendental.


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