The premise of fun too great to be remembered has founded some of cinema’s masterpieces, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944) and Last Year in Marienbad (1961) being the most notable examples. Todd Phillips, of Old School (2003) fame, has just widened the geography of places likely to make you forget how good a time you just had. In The Hangover (2009) it’s not Morgan’s Creek or Marienbad: it’s Las Vegas.
More than just yet another movie about a bachelor party gone bad, The Hangover employs a good narrative mechanism that sustains your interest throughout. The trick lies in multiplying absurd clues for the three characters to decode; clues that will help them reconstruct what exactly happened the night before, when – apparently – they had too much fun they could have handled. In its “spot-a clue-follow-a-clue” approach to narrative, the movie is much more fun than recent Angels & Demons (2009), where the stakes (the existence of the planet Earth) weren’t nearly as high as in The Hangover (the possibility of facing a pissed-off bride).
I liked The Hangover less than I expected and more than I’d like to admit. The trailer had a big appeal for me: it seemed to project the kind of absurdist immediacy I often like in comedies (what won me over, was the chicken walking around in the post-orgy hotel suite). But very soon after the film started I realized that what I liked condensed in the ads, got very diluted in the whole narrative. Also, most of the jokes seemed too mechanical to be enjoyed in any other way than by giggling, a reaction I don’t like to succumb to. It’s half-hearted laughter and I value comedies that do without it (hail to conquering Sturges!).
But the movie is often very funny, which is mainly thanks to one single performance. Zach Galifianakis, best described at some point as “fat Jesus”, is a new comic master I failed to recognize when I saw his stand-up act on Comedy Central. His beard and hair is so thick, there is barely anything left of his face to work with, but that’s the point: he projects the kind of aloof idiocy that doesn’t really engage with the world at hand. What I liked best was his pre-written speech to his about-to-be-married buddy, where he speaks of himself: “I tend to think of myself as a one-man wolf pack”. It’s worthy to see The Hangover just to listen to the conviction with which he delivers this line.