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Movie Review: The Hangover

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I imagine the genesis of The Hangover began on the pages of Maxim, where readers were asked their most outrageous bachelor party moments. Strippers and tigers and Tyson, oh my! Then the writers of the film got to work splicing and sliding the pieces together into one cohesive narrative which was grounded by the friendship of four men out for a night they would never forget, but unfortunately cannot remember.

There is little plot-wise beyond the trailer: a trio of repressed man-boys embark to Vegas for their buddy's final fling with freedom before getting hitched. But what the trailer does not allude to is not only the breakthrough performances of its leads, but the subtle nuance of their friendship that plays out almost like a sequel to director Todd Phillips' previous ode to arrested development, Old School (there's even a cameo by the same profane wedding band).

Here, the leads are Phil (played by Bradley Cooper, saying goodbye to his co-star status and emerging as a solidified sex object/funnyman), Stu (played by Ed Helms, dropping his Office smarm and embracing his true nerdiness), and Alan (played by Zach Galifianakis, finally, finally! getting that cinematic Red Bull of a role that he's deserved for so long).

All three are let loose in Las Vegas to mark the impending marriage of friend Doug (played by handsome-but-mostly-absent Justin Bartha) and get set to leave their various real-life issues behind them. Of course, no sooner do they raise a glass to toast the groom-to-be do the men wake up in various uncompromising positions (I'm still not sure how the chicken factors into everything) and Doug completely missing. It sends them all on a fact-finding race against time that reveals deeper and deeper levels of insanity and/or depravity.

The actors settle into their roles quite comfortably and are all seasoned enough to let one another take a turn in the spotlight, which elevates the film far above the trite, sexy shenanigans it very well could have been. At the screening I attended, it seemed that certain audience members clung to particular characters and reveled in their particular exploits. But whomever you choose to relate to, the fact is they all worked together to bring authenticity to their relationships.

The other interesting angle of The Hangover is that instead of focusing on a wild-and-crazy night a la After Hours or John Landis' sadly underrated Into the Night, it deals with the inevitable cleanup after the damage has been done. The guys, who are tenuous pals at best, must all work together in piecing together the night before to locate their friend before the wedding bells chime.

Most of the women in The Hangover are militant shrews, but Heather Graham does deserve a nod as a stripper-with-a-heart-of-gold that plays perfectly to her somewhat limited talents.

It's curious to see if director Phillips can break out of the well-worn path he decides to follow on film (Road Trip was also quite similar thematically, and his attempt to shift gears resulted in the woeful School for Scoundrels), but as long as there are gaggles of men behaving badly in the name of fun, he remains keyed in to that specific demographic.

I am hesitant to go along with some critics who are heralding it as the best comedy of the summer (it's only June, guys — take a breath), but The Hangover is worth noting as the right amount of rocket fuel to propel its leads into the next level of stardom.

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