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Amnesia Is What You Get for Waking Up in Vegas

MOVIE REVIEW
The Hangover (2009)

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Frank Masi/Warner Bros. Pictures

Lots of comically gruesome things happen in “The Hangover,” a cautionary tale about the dangers of bachelor-party debauchery spun out of control, but the movie presents them with such cheerful eloquence it’s impossible to have anything less than a great time. The casting of Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms and Zach Galifianakis as the leads has a lot to do with that.

Each actor brings his character the right combination of solipsistic self-regard and sympathetic uncertainty, inspiring the combination of derision and empathy required for well-rounded character portraits. At the same time, each expands on his already established persona (Mr. Cooper’s slick ladies’ man, Mr. Helms’s doofus preppy frat boy, and Mr. Galifianakis’s lovable schlub) to give the film a diverse collection of comic types to play with.

The men play the best friends and, in Mr. Galifianakis’s case, the future brother-in-law of poor Doug Billings (Justin Bartha), soon to be married and completely ignorant of what’s he in for when they accompany him to Las Vegas for a pre-marital night on the town. They check into a slick villa at Caesars Palace and prepare for their evening by ascending to the roof and toasting with shots of Jägermeister. Suddenly, a time lapse shot takes us to the next morning and the friends awake to a trashed suite, such inexplicable visitors as a tiger, a chicken and a baby, and no memory of the previous night. There’s also no sign of Doug, and the wedding’s just 24 hours away.

What follows is an energetic jaunt through ribald territory, centered on the theory (as stated by a character in the film) that some guys just can’t handle Vegas. Aptly, director Todd Phillips and screenwriters Jon Lucas and Scott Moore understand there’s nothing funny about the glitzy, glittering image of the city that’s typically fostered upon us in Hollywood productions. Rather, the humor lies in the morning after, the depiction of the ramifications of spending too much in a place that trades in sensory overload, in the film’s implicit rejection of the “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” mantra. The screenplay offers a freewheeling collection of absurd situations, many of which work solely because of their outrageousness, but the key that underwrites and links it together is its heightened rendition of the brutal effects of an extended bender, a universal sensation if ever there was one, made even less tolerable by the unrelenting brightness that characteristically floods Sin City’s nook of the Mojave Desert.

Mr. Phillips, having made “Old School” and “Road Trip,” is an old hat at evoking the over-the-top male-bonding dynamic presented here. An heir to the John Landis/Harold Ramis tradition, he keeps the outrageous content flying at furious speeds, never pausing for sloppily tacked on sentimentality. Additionally, the audience connects fully with the protagonists’ crazed search for answers because the filmmakers only reveal details of the previous night as the characters uncover them. There’s no omniscient perspective, no schadenfreude to be had, because we are as engulfed in the chaos as the men onscreen. Instead, Mr. Phillips lets the way the characters react to such unexpected phenomena as an angry Mike Tyson, a nightmarish few moments spent in a police station and the repeated pursuit of enraged Asian gangsters speak for itself. In so doing he applies to a screwball comedy an age-old human truth: The truest way to test the mettle of a man, to know precisely what he is made of, is to send him through a doozy of a crisis.

THE HANGOVER

Opens on June 5 in the United States and on June 12 in Britain.

Directed by Todd Phillips; written by Jon Lucas and Scott Moore; director of photography, Lawrence Sher; edited by Debra Neil-Fisher; music by Christophe Beck; production designer, Bill Brzeski; produced by Mr. Phillips and Dan Goldberg; released by Warner Bros. Pictures. Running time: 1 hour 36 minutes. This film is rated R by M.P.A.A. and 15 by B.B.F.C.

WITH: Bradley Cooper (Phil), Ed Helms (Stu), Zach Galifianakis (Alan), Heather Graham (Jade), Justin Bartha (Doug), Mike Epps (Black Doug), Jeffrey Tambor (Sid) and Mike Tyson (himself).

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