Todd Phillips peddles gonzo male camaraderie fantasies in which lifelong friendships are forged and/or reinforced through trials by fire. The Hangover is something like the apotheosis of this genre, a rambunctious anti-P.C. saga about guys cementing unbreakable bonds during the amnesia-addled two-day fallout from their buddy Doug’s (Justin Bartha) Vegas bachelor party. After cocky schoolteacher Phil (Bradley Cooper) phones Doug’s bride from the Nevada desert to warn that her impending nuptials aren’t going to happen, Phillips’s story flashes back 48 hours to the lead-up to the notorious festivities, attended by Phil and weak-kneed dentist Stu (Ed Helms), as well as Doug’s slow-witted brother-in-law-to-be Alan (Zach Galifianakis). Exhibiting signs of drug-fueled brain damage, Galifianakis confidently treats the film’s first half as a personal showcase, nailing so many weirdly uncomfortable one-liners—including a priceless gag involving an infant and simulated masturbation—that despite the predictable homophobic barbs marring the early mood, he single-handedly inspires confidence in the zaniness promised by the subsequently established premise. Awakening the morning after the bachelor party in a casino suite with a smoldering chair, a chicken, and a tiger in the bathroom, and a baby in the closet, the three hungover misfits attempt to piece together the preceding night’s events.
It’s a situation modeled after Sin City’s promo-cum-catchphrase “What happens in Vegas…,” and one Philips sharply structures as a pile-up of outrageous revelations. Stu’s missing tooth! Mike Tyson singing “In the Air Tonight”! Stu discovering that he has married a stripper/escort (Heather Graham) with his grandma’s beloved “Holocaust ring,” to which Alan dimly muses, “I didn’t know they gave out rings at the Holocaust.” Shot with minimal adequacy, highlighted by a particularly inept composition that cuts off characters’ swearing faces (a transparent means of making forthcoming TV edits feasible?), the wildly profane Hangover isn’t visually pretty, and it has a narrative to match. Asians and gays are simultaneously slandered via Ken Jeong’s Mr. Chow, while women are generally presented as shrill nags (save for Graham’s heart-o’-gold whore, whose reward for being good is getting to flash her boob during breast-feeding), thus making the climactic reaffirmation of marriage and family come off as phony twaddle.
Wrongheadedness aside, though, director Phillips wrings his scenario for consistent semi-dark humor, letting his odd-couple leads go for broke and wielding mystery as a comedic spur that keeps the proceedings from dragging. For better and worse, it’s coarse, vulgar boys-night-out ribaldry, and when it hits its inappropriate testosterone-y groove (capped off by a Galifianakis end-credits photo series to marvel at), the film, like its titular condition, hurts pretty good.