Monday, June 8, 2009

Exciting Newness: The Hangover

Well, I've had this blog up for about a week now, and have failed to post anything of note. The blog has been a great success! I was hoping originally to post a very complete, comprehensive lil essay about my thoughts and feelings about the first 4 Friday the 13th movies, which I suppose I could attempt to put across as "timely" as February's Marcus Nispel helmed franchise reboot arrives on DVD (and Blu-Ray!) pretty soon, though the real reason for it is that I just enjoy revisiting the franchise around this time of the year, a time when I wish I could be out with my friends camping, having sex and being picked off one by one by a deranged killer. I really love those first four films, truth be told, and I'll try to put something meaningful together soonish. As it is, I feel I just need to write SOMETHIN here to get the juices flowing and to overcome my phobia of writing/failing at what I write, and why not review a movie that hit theaters friday, and fashionably late at that?

Above: Several of the actors in The Hangover, which is being reviewed below

The Hangover, 2009, d. Todd Phillips

There's a brief few moments at the opening of The Hangover that left me with a faint hope that this latest entry in the "Irresponsible Man-Child Comedy" genre may contain the sense of weight, or at least the near apocalyptic tone, of April's Observe and Report. I wouldn't quite label myself a big fan of the film, at least not yet, and I'm unsure of how it would hold up on a second viewing (though I do want quite a bit to see it again), but there was something going on in parts of Observe and Report that were quite special. Up until the ending, which I experienced as a bit of a cop out, the exploits of Seth Rogen's manic-depressive, violent mall cop were treated with an urgency and seriousness that was rather shocking. For the first time since this wave of comedies, wielding the dual swords of "offensive" humor and "meaningful" frankness, took off with stuff like The 40 Year Old Virgin, here was a comedy, black as pitch, that actually looked like it had the nerves and honesty to back up what it offered; a movie, in short, with consequence as well as action. Watching Rogen attack a group of policemen only to be pummeled into submission, or brutalize a group of skateboarding teenagers, or, hell, shoot a naked man in the middle of a mall (!!!) were played up for more than yuks- there is a troubling reality here, the sense that the zero-sum, zero-lessons-learned atmosphere of irresponsibility Observe and Report appeared to be the innumerable incarnation of was falling apart in the terrible, only logical way it could. What made the now infamous date rape scene shocking and, to my mind, the best, most important and perfect scene of the film, was not the predictable fallout (all-too-predictable, sadly- one side, including Rogen and Anna Faris, making the usual, tired, pathetic "it's just a movie", "it's just a comedy", "she wasn't COMPLETELY unconscious" excuses, even going so far, in one interview, to justify the scene by pointing out that Faris' character is, let's face it dudes, a huge bitch- and the other side arguing essentially that such content ought never to be seen, that art has its limits, etc [I do apologize that, with the rather vague accusations made here, I do not have direct links and quotes. I will try my hardest to find them and post them]) or even the effectiveness with which it further examined and developed Rogen's character and his insecurities, but the way in which it immediately detonated the dormant charges left on the screen and in the viewer's mind from numerous other "edgy" comedies cut from the same cloth. Here is the first indictment in any of these movies, to my mind, of the casual misogyny and hedonism these films offer as their ethical alpha and omega, the first indication that maybe, just maybe, the macho posturing and innocent fun of pickin' up drunk bitches at the bar could lead to something a good deal uglier than love, wealth, and success (or even, y'know, being puked on in a hilarious fashion). That the film also has some of the most developed and sympathetic female roles in this current cycle of comedies in Celia Weston's alcoholic mother to Rogen and Collette Wolfe's sweet, heartbreaking coffee booth attendant further distances Observe and Report as far more the exception than the rule. I don't remember laughing very much through Observe and Report's running time, but I do remember nearly crying at points, and I haven't had a better time at a comedy in ages, truth be told. This might be a simple reflection of what I personally search for in movies, I admit, but it might also point to the larger problem inherent in a lot of the comedies coming out lately- if you're gonna try and tackle volatile gender and culture issues and you're aiming for something that rings true and honest, it doesn't hurt to have some cold, hard bedrock under all that comedic sand.

The Hangover opens, if I might continue my half-baked metaphor for just a bit, with the Nevada sand playing the part of that bedrock. In the middle of the Mohave Desert, Phil (Bradley Cooper, a man who, between this, He's Just Not That Into You and his recent hosting of Saturday Night Live, is apparently a big deal, but whom I admit I would have a difficult time recognizing if I passed him on the street), weathered, with blood on his lip and shirt, is, in desperation, telling Sasha (Tracy Garner), dressed in her white gown and anxious, that her fiancee Doug (Justin Bartha) has gone missing at some point during his own bachelor party. They aren't going to make the wedding, which is only hours away. There is a sense of utter doom in this short opening scene, the flat, endless, dead desert a perfect compliment to the hopelessness contained in Phil's admission. This striking scene was enough to carry me through the next few rather flat comedic episodes to the next sequence of interest: as the four companions, rounded out by requisite uptight, straight laced (or is he?!) friend, Stu (Ed Helms, who, between this and what little I have seen of him on The Daily Show and The Office, I can honestly say has not offered a performance that I have found for one second convincing), and the requisite weirdo, Alan (alternative comedy royalty Zach Galifianakis, obviously and almost painfully better than the material given to him throughout), drive into Vegas as darkness falls, shepherded in to the sounds of Kanye West's Can't Tell Me Nothin' (an obvious nod to the fact that Galifianakis made a hilarious alternative music video for the song which can be seen on youtube, the mere recollection of which is largely funnier than the bulk of The Hangover), we are privy to some frankly breathtaking shots of Sin City all lit up at night in all its sex, drugs, and rock n roll peddling glory. Personally, my thoughts ran immediately to a passage by Roland Barthes concerning the spectacle of professional wrestling, an interest in which I've recently been rekindling. "In fact wrestling is an open-air spectacle", Barthes writes, "for what makes the circus or the arena what they are is not the sky... it is the drenching and vertical quality of the flood of light... wrestling partakes of the nature of the great solar spectacles, Greek drama and bullfights: in both, a light without shadow generates an emotion without reserve." So it is here in Las Vegas- immaculately lit and larger than life, the fountains, signs and buildings of Las Vegas extinguish a certain idea of inner truth, replacing it with pure spectacle and artifice. Here, a light without shadow generates a sin and excess without reserve. When our hard partying companions wake up in the movie's titular trashed condition, half clothed on the floor of their 4K a night Caesar's Palace villa, surrounded by empty champagne bottles, beer cans stacked to the ceiling, with a baby in their closet, a tiger in the bathroom, their soon-to-be-married friend nowhere to be found and no recollection of the night before, one has the right to be hopeful that, like Observe and Report, The Hangover may actually have that little extra something, that it might actually have the guts to become a pop culture exploration of what responsibility means, exactly, in a place where the mere idea of responsibility has no meaning, where restraint, strategy and clear thinking are as close as they can be anywhere to being literally forbidden (you can't count the cards, remember, not even in your head).

I, unfortunately, did not have the right to hope for this, as I had read a review that gave away the revelation that becomes the movie's get-out-of-jail-free card. Turns out that (SPOILER ALERT! Well, sorta) Alan, crazy man that he is (and who, we're lead to believe, is a sex offender as well; we're given something of a further hint to this through a gag where he makes their toddler companion pantomime masturbation, a gag offensive only in its utterly botched, flat execution) had spiked the groups opening shots of Jaeger with what he though was Ecstasy. Turns out the ecstasy was really Rohypnol, wouldn't you know it, and with that The Hangover is allowed to throw any ethical burden or question of culpability out the window for our party goers. What ensues is a pretty typical collection of comedic situations as the three friends attempt to piece the events of last night together while searching for the missing groom-to-be, while the audience is blissfully unburdened with the task of coming to any judgment about the actions committed and how it reflects the character of our protagonists because, c'mon, they were totally wasted and, what's more, that wasn't even really their fault! One may protest that I'm just reading too darn deep into this stupid little movie, that it's meant to be fun and slight, and that as a comedy I should just enter the damn thing with lowered expectations. The fact is I'm not asking the world from the movie, I'm asking for a little honesty and a little danger. There's nothing honest about lightening the tone of a movie through such a simplistic, simplified plot device; indeed, looking past the flattening of characterization and easy excuse the plot device provides, the chemical nature and social reputation of roofies should be enough to indict the lightness of the film's disclosure as flat out irresponsible- just another excuse for the most callous and misogynistic to crack date rape jokes without a thought to the graveness of what they are mocking. Likewise (or perhaps conversely), there's nothing dangerous (I suppose I use the word, perhaps, in something of a romantic sense- I guess I mean that it's challenging, confrontational, difficult) to the reckless actions the protagonists take part in during their crazy night. There's no weight to the idea that perhaps the reason Stu got married on a whim in one of those infamous Las Vegas chapels to a prostitute is because he is unhappy with the life he's led with his viciously controlling wife (Rachel Harris, of Daily Show and all those "I Love the ..." VH1 series), just as there's no weight to stealing Mike Tyson's tiger or stealing $18,000 worth of chips from the Bellagio. This isn't a problem in itself- the problem is that The Hangover then turns around and pretends that there is weight there. After making light, quick, cheap gags out of the whole affair, we are then supposed to be touched when Stu and his hooker once-wife promise to have lunch together sometime down the line, supposed to be (at least slightly) involved as Alan Rain Man's his way into a small fortune at Blackjack, supposed to feel... relief, I guess, as the four rush back to Los Angeles to make the wedding on time (with the help of a tuxedo company that'll toss yer tuxes into yer car on the highways of Los Angeles, natch) and, essentially, destroy the entire premise the introduction of the film had given us. But hey, who doesn't like a happy ending, right?

If my rant hasn't convinced you that the film is flat, dishonest, and completely sanitized despite its "mature" leanings, I suppose I could bring up how the film is overtly racist, sexist, misogynistic, etc (that I don't recall any scenes that struck me as really homophobic leaves me less relieved than simply concerned that perhaps the theater in which I watched it had simply misplaced an entire reel of the film film featuring a flamboyant wedding planner and our heroes accidentally walking into "the wrong bar". It could also be that the recent decision to uphold Prop 8 in California has left me hesitant to search out more bad news). Doug is able to smooth over his seemingly-ruined wedding with an embarrassing boys'll-be-boys, I'll-never-put-you-through-this-type-of-thing-again pep talk to his wife while they take their vows, while Stu finally gains the guts to tell his Bitchy-Bitch-Bitch Super Bitch of a girlfriend to fuck off. The Hangover takes the stance, as a lotta these movies seem to, that there's nothing questionable, dangerous or irresponsible enough that a man can do for him to deserve being reprimanded too harshly, while any woman too shrill, controlling or jealous to do anything about it deserves to be nuked off the face of the fucking planet. Really, the fact is that any of this wouldn't be a problem to me if the movie just had the courage to really be something as troubling and ugly and excessive as its subjects demand, if it didn't place its bigotries and unpleasantness as an ultimately upstanding, healthy, brave worldview. It encapsulates a lot of the tendencies that have caused the comedy in general to become such a tedious and often useless little genre to me. Chick flicks, Bro flicks, whatever- all too often they're where you find the easiest, laziest material around, filled with easy breezy gay jokes and racial stereotypes, too cowardly or self-important to give in to the full-on comedic anarchy that makes a movie like The Jerk such a joy and lacking the firm dramatic ground of something like, say, Sideways, leaving a forgettable, utterly disposable void of an experience. In fact, I feel Sideways is the perfect movie to discuss alongside The Hangover. Had it been honest and brave and essentially most of the things it isn't, The Hangover, with its predisposition towards sleaze and excess and a more marginalized audience, could have been truly something, a film able to explore highs and lows, Sin City, and the Road Trip in the way a more mainstream, prestige-y film like Sideways is simply not afforded. Ultimately, though, while there's still fun to be had in Galifianakis' performance (and it is my sincerest hope that this film, if nothing else, helps Zach and his ilk grab a bigger piece of the comedy pie, as it were- the kind of fresh, strange comedy he's been one of the most visible purveyors of could be just the thing pictures like this need to eventually rise out of the muck), a few sly (if ultimately empty) references to movies like Casino, and, for me at least, it's fun to see comic Brody Stevens in a brief cameo, The Hangover is slight and forgettable, casually offensive and slightly amusing where a little more thought and bravery would have made it transcendent and hysterical. It'll no doubt become a slight fan favorite amongst a particular demographic of college students, which I suppose makes it pretty much a success. It really only hurts when I think about all the potential it squandered.

Tentative Rating: 1.5/4 (I'm not sure how I'll be doing ratings in the future, though I feel relatively comfortable with an "out of 4" system. My ratings are way subjective, of course, and I'm sure they sometimes take into account things I haven't actually discussed in my actual review. Here, for instance, any movie featuring Mike Tyson singing along to In The Air Tonight is almost certain to get nothing higher than a 2, ever.)


Elle said...

If I wasn't at work right now, I would totally be watching The Jerk.

Hoho said...

But I thought the shrill Asian(Gaysian? Oh haha) dude with the buck teeth and Hong Kong accent was totally hilarious!

Paging Dr. F*ggot was pretty funny, too.