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.
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.