Monday, July 18, 2011

The Hangover (2009) Guest Review

It’s been a couple months since my last guest review (The Social Network) on sgwordy, so I guess it’s time for another one.  I was in Las Vegas a couple weeks ago and it put me in mind to finally watch The Hangover.  Now that I’ve seen it I have a few thoughts to share, so let’s get to it!

Warning: This will be more of a deconstruction of comedies using The Hangover as the dominant example than a review, so all the typical spoiler warnings apply.  If you haven’t seen The Hangover yet and are planning to do so, give this column a miss for now and come back after you’ve watched it.  Also, it should be noted that comedy is probably the most subjective genre out there.  We all have a different sense of what is “funny” and what isn’t.  So take my thoughts simply as my own opinion…your mileage with this film will vary.

The Story in a Nutshell:
Doug is getting married in two days, which means it’s time for that most time-honored pre-marital tradition: the bachelor party.  To celebrate the impending nuptials, Doug heads to Vegas with his best friends Phil and Stu, as well as his soon to be brother-in-law Alan.  The boys are looking forward to a final night of drunken debauchery, but things go terribly wrong when they wake up the next morning to discover that Doug is missing and they have no memory of the previous night’s events.  With the wedding looming, Phil, Stu, and Alan slowly piece together what happened, as it becomes increasingly clear that they were involved in some strange activities…and now they’ll have to deal with the consequences if they ever want to see Doug again.

What Worked for Me:

* The R Rating – Not all comedies need an R rating to be funny for adults.  The Princess Bride is PG, and it’s one of the funniest movies ever made.  But a movie about four buddies going to Vegas for a bachelor party and getting into outrageous trouble has to be R rated, or it isn’t being true to the source material.  I guarantee that there was some point where an executive got his grubby paws on this picture and argued for toning it down to a PG-13 so they could score the teen audience that Hollywood so greatly covets.  Kudos to the filmmakers for refusing to give in and keeping the raunchy material in the film at the possible cost of a little box office largess.

* The Cinematography – Most movies filmed in Vegas show the city in a very similar way.  Lots of iconic casino facades, people gambling and looking happy, flashing lights, beautiful showgirls…we’ve all seen that montage before.  Now, I’ve been to Vegas many times and consider myself to be quite the aficionado.  While it’s fun to think of Sin City that way, the reality is that when you pull back the curtain a bit, it’s a blue collar city (most of the jobs are not exactly high paying) with more than a bit of a seedy underbelly.  The Hangover starts with a Vegas montage, but it’s shot in a darker way, with a lot of the iconic Vegas sights (ex. The Bellagio fountains) framed at a low, askew angle.  It’s a clever visual that parallels the events of the movie, in which the characters are seduced by the flashy exterior and find a more dangerous Las Vegas lurking behind.  Overall, I thought the movie was shot well.  It felt like the real Vegas and not the illusion that you normally get. 

* Ed Helms as Stu – Helms is probably best known for his work on The Office (American version).  He’s actually cut his teeth as a comedic actor, which gives him a leg up over his costars Bradley Cooper (better known for light action fare like Alias and the movie remake of The A-Team), Zach Galifianakis (better known for his stand up comedy), and Justin Bartha (better known for…hmm…being Nick Cage’s side-kick in the National Treasure films?).  It’s no surprise that Helms has the best comedic timing of the bunch and carries the movie for scenes at a time.  Also, of the four main characters in the film, Stu is the only one to have what could be considered an “arc.” 

Quick aside: I sort of hinted at this in my last review, but I’m old school in my movie tastes and look dimly on films without arcs.  A character arc gives the story, no matter how comedic or fantastical, a grounding with which the audience can identify.  If none of the characters experience any personal growth, if they don’t change their life situations, if no lessons are learned, the events of the film will often feel pointless and arbitrary.  To be fair, not all movies have to conform to this formula, and occasionally great movies can be made without any of the characters experiencing a significant arc (a recent example is Lost in Translation).  Still, it’s walking a wire to omit character arcs and most director/writers who try it end up falling.

Back to The Hangover…Doug, Alan, and Phil have no arc at all.  Stu, on the other hand, starts the movie as a meek coward who is terrified of Melissa, his vile harpy of a girlfriend.  He lies to her about going to Vegas (claiming that they’re actually going to wine country), he placates her on the phone every time she calls to “check in,” and he justifies her shrewish behavior to his friends.  Over the course of the movie, Stu becomes more self-confident and independent, ultimately dumping Melissa to take a shot at a more healthy (if odd) relationship with a stripper.  Okay, it isn’t MUCH of an arc, but it’s as close as we’re getting in this movie.

* Dan Finnerty! – The wedding singer at Doug’s ceremony is Dan Finnerty of the super-awesome Dan Band.  That likely means very little to anyone other than me…but I was stoked.

What Didn’t Work for Me:

* Pretty much everything else – There are so many misfires here, it’s hard to mention them all.  Just doing some freeform rapid-fire style criticisms:

- The plot is threadbare and ancillary to most of the action/humor.  The movie is just a series of comedic set pieces without a cohesive narrative.
- With regards to point #1, the “clues” that they follow to find Doug don’t make any sense and don’t lead to the final outcome in any sensible way.  Seriously, count the number of times in this movie where the plot moves forward through external coincidences rather than through actions taken by the central characters.
- The characters are flat, one-note stereotypes.  Rachel Harris should be embarrassed to play Melissa, an amalgam of every “controlling spouse/girlfriend” cliché in the book.  Every scene involving Melissa and Stu is cringe-inducing.
- Justin Bartha as Doug is one of the blandest zeroes in the history of film.  I realize that he disappears part way into the movie, but it still isn’t clear why Phil, Alan, and Stu think he’s such a great guy.  There are several points in the film where they sing (?!?) about how much they like Doug, yet there isn’t a single scene that would clarify why they’re such close friends.
- Speaking of which, Stu and Phil are supposedly very old friends, yet are polar opposites and seem to barely tolerate each other.  When people become friends, it’s usually because they have something in common, share similar values, etc.  It’s sort of implied that Doug is the keystone holding the whole thing together, but again, he’s portrayed as a total dud.  How are these people friends?

But the most damning thing of all?  It’s just not very funny.  At least, not to me.  And that’s kind of a deal breaker in a comedy.  So the question is, why did I not find it funny when so many people did?  After all, it made a lot of money.  It was popular enough to get a sequel.  I’ve thought about this, and I think I’ve hit on the answer.

Let’s take all the humor in comedic movies and split it into two broad groups: “jokes” and “gags.”  Jokes come in many forms, including brief one-liners, setups with clear punch lines, double entendres, and even referential humor tying the current situation to other material.  Gags also come in many forms, but are far more self-contained than jokes.  Most of the “shock” moments in comedies are gags, relying on people doing or saying things that are not appropriate for the situation.  How can you tell the difference between jokes and gags?  Imagine describing the humor to a person who hasn’t seen it.  If you can just straight up state the dialogue:

Dr. Rumack: Can you fly this plane, and land it?
Ted Striker: Surely you can't be serious.
Dr. Rumack: I am serious... and don't call me Shirley.

…then you’re probably telling a joke.  If you have to describe the context of the scene in detail for it to make any sense:

“So then, Cameron Diaz’s character is sitting in the bar, and her hair is sticking up at a funny angle because she thought it was hair gel…”

…then it’s probably a gag.  Notice that in the first example, a person who hasn’t seen Airplane could still find the lines funny.  But a person who hasn’t seen There’s Something About Mary wouldn’t understand the context of the gag and would therefore not see the humor without a lot of explanation.

I don’t mind gags, and sometimes they can be really funny.  There’s Something About Mary had a lot of really funny gags (remember the zipper scene?), but it also had jokes to back up the gags, as well as sympathetic characters (one of whom has a fully realized arc).  That’s good comedy.

The Hangover is part of a recent trend I’ve noticed in films – comedies with no jokes.  I’m not kidding, there are almost no jokes in the whole movie.  I glanced over the IMDbsite for The Hangover before writing this piece, specifically looking through the quotes that people posted for the film (if a comedy is really quotable, that’s a sign of good jokes).  Of the entire list, there’s really only one or two that qualify as jokes.  The rest are things that people were saying during the movie’s various gags.  If you laugh at the quote, what you’re probably doing is remembering the gag that it’s matched with from the film.

Let me give some examples of the kind of humor that comprises The Hangover:
- Mike Tyson watches security footage of the guys peeing in his pool while they sit next to him looking uncomfortable.
- Alan finds a slice of pizza in the hotel room couch and eats it.
- Stu, Phil, and Alan get beat up by a naked man.
- Alan notices that there’s a tiger in the bathroom and pees all over the floor while escaping.

Or how about this comedic gem straight from the IMDb quotes page:

Alan Garner: I want you to know, Doug, I'm a steel trap. Whatever happens tonight, I will never, ever, ever speak a word of it.
Doug Billings: Ok, I got it. Thank you. I don't think that...
Alan Garner: Seriously, I don't care what happens. I don't care if we kill someone.
Doug Billings: What?
Alan Garner: You heard me. It's Sin City. I won't tell a soul.

That sort of looks like a joke, but notice that there’s no punch line, no wit, no meaning beyond the context of this scene.  Alan is a weird guy who blurts out inappropriate things.  Either you think that’s funny, or you don’t.  There’s no additional level to appreciate.  And that’s why this isn’t a joke, it’s a gag.

The Verdict:

I like comedies with jokes, and The Hangover wants you to be content with gags.  If you’re a big fan of films like Epic Movie (all gags and no jokes), then you will probably love The Hangover.  If you’re like me and prefer jokes to gags, then I’d pass on this one.  So with apologies to the many fans of this film, I can’t recommend The Hangover and I won’t be seeing the sequel.

Two movies in a row that I didn’t really like…  Maybe for my next review, I’ll make a point of choosing something that I actually enjoyed! 

Many thanks to Dr Musacha for his guest reviews. His real name might not be Musacha, but Dr is his real title. If you're interested in other ways the Doctor spends his time when not unraveling the secrets near and dear to a cardiologist's heart (ha!), check out The Doctor and the Dude Show. You can also find him here and here.


  1. Excellent examination of this film, oh secret guest reviewer. Great detail and exposition on why this film is a such gag-fest. I know I appreciated it when I saw it in the theater because of its inappropriateness and surprises, at times. But you're quite right, Stu is the draw for a real story in the piece -- Zach, the guy everyone much mentioned in reviews, which got him more film roles, was pretty much one note. Of course, his girlfriend is one of the most vile in recent film history, I think. Good call, too, on how the filmmakers took advantage of Las Vegas as a character in the film. Sort of like how Scorsese lifted the veil on the town with CASINO and wove it into the audience's skin.

    While I found it funny the first time, I think it won't stand up very well on repeat viewing. Hence, the reason it sits unopened in my video stack. Another fine film review. Of course, you know I'm voting for more of these. Thanks for this.

  2. Jeff - I really like your broad categories for comedies! What a great idea! It really helps me give language to why it is that I don't enjoy so many of the comedies that are released these days. I don't mind gags but, almost 100% of the time, I don't enjoy movies where they are meant to carry the film. (side note: you and I have very similar taste in comedies and I now can say easily that where we differ are in the comedies where the gags work for me and not you or vice versa)

    Another thing about comedies is that I like a good script. I think a good script is key to a comedy. That's probably why I like comedies with jokes rather than gags. You can have - and almost always do have - a poor script (and an absence of character arcs) in a gag comedy but a joke comedy without a good script falls pretty flat. I wonder if so many gag comedies are being made because you don't have to work as hard on the script (I realize too that the general public paying lotsa money to see them also helps:).

    There are lots of gags I remember fondly (usu it's the gags combined with a joke) but just today at work I said, "Samsonite! I was way off!" and everyone cracked up. :) Everyone had seen the movie, got the gag and laughed at the memory.

    lp13 - I added a little bit to the end so our secret guest reviewer won't seem so much like a secret. :)

    And I thought you'd like to know that Jeff already has his next film in mind so I think we will definitely see more of these. And my Starship Trooper follow-up post will be a joint effort between us so I hope you will enjoy that, too. (erm, whenever I get around to actually typing up the thoughts in my head)

  3. I was told to watch TH by someone who knows I'm interested in comedy - and was disappointed. I was clearly not the target demographic, as I found very, very little funny, but I will concede that I thought it was original. I really didn't ever know what was going to happen next (except, of course, that the groom was going to be forgiven by the bride and get married as planned because he was portrayed as a good guy. How do we know? Because he is tolerant of his odd brother-in-law, and, having established that, I wasn't surprised he disappeared because he clearly had not other role to play in the action).

    I kept being drawn out of the story to scratch my head about scriptwriter choices - why was it so important to make the guy who was most angry/willing to engage in questionable behavior be a teacher and (supposedly) loving family man? Why was it important for the nude guy confined in the trunk to leap on his releaser's head? Was it supposed to introduce a sexual orientation element whose meaning escaped me? What was the deal with mattress on the roof, anyway? Etc. etc.

    What I'm fascinated by, though, is your joke/gag analysis. I'm going to have to copy and think about that a bit more. It sort of reminds me of an article I wrote for my writing group about how it's important to know how much 'legs' a joke has, and when to cease repeating it because it is really, really bad to continue with a joke through a whole book that should have been a one-of.

  4. le0pard13 - Thanks for the positive comments. It was definitely a break-out role for Zach, and I don't really have a big problem with that. The movie could have been improved (for me) if there had been more of an overarching story, with Zach playing the zany guy on the side (a bit like Johnny Depp as Capt. Jack Sparrow in the original Pirates movie).

    And good call on Casino, an underrated film in my opinion.

    Wordy One - You and I do have very similar taste in comedy (and a lot of other convenient!) and you were right to give this one a pass. This film was much beloved my a number of people but it wasn't really in our wheelhouse. And I think you're definitely right that gag scripts are probably easier to write than joke scripts.

    To tease my next review (whenever that comes up), I'll be talking about a contemporary comedy that I actually liked!

    M - I had so many of the SAME QUESTIONS as you!!! Especially about the teacher who hates marriage and children but ends the movie with happy family time...what? Where did that come from? If there had been some growth of the character during the film that led to an epiphany that having a family is better than getting attacked by naked lunatics in Vegas, that might have made some sense.

    Thanks for the comments!