"The Hangover" begins somewhat mysteriously. It starts with a group of guys stuck somewhere in the middle of the desert. One makes a phone call to a woman telling her that her fiance Doug (Justin Bartha) is missing. They'd find him, but they have no clue where he is or what they even did the night before.
Back track to two days earlier. Doug is about to get married. His friends decide to throw him a bachelor party. Those friends include Phil (Bradley Cooper), the one in the group who considers himself the cool guy; Alan (Zach Galifianakis), Doug's creepy, aimless brother in law; and Stu (Ed Helms), a nerdy dentist who's troubled by his controlling girlfriend (Rachael Harris).
The boys plan a road trip to Las Vegas. After a hard night of partying, they wake up hung over and realizing they remember nothing from the previous night. The only clues are a baby, a chicken, a stolen cop car, and a tiger. Stu's tooth is missing and worse, so is Doug. With only a day before the wedding, Phil, Alan, and Stu strive to put together the puzzle pieces of what happened the night before and then hopefully find Doug. We never see what really happened that night until a surreal photo montage during the film's credits, but it's well worth the long wait.
"The Hangover" oddly resembles "Reservoir Dogs" in structure (there's even a guy in the trunk scene!) more than most of the other films director Todd Phillips is known for ("Road Trip," "Old School"). This, of course, is a good thing. It is rare for a movie to be both a dirty comedy and a put-the-pieces together mystery at the same time but "The Hangover" balances both of these very different genres with great results.
Part of what makes "The Hangover" work so well is the often over-the-top events that occur in it. But in these events, the characters act the way you'd expect anyone to act. How would you react when you wake up to go to the bathroom and realize you're peeing next to a tiger? How would you react when a naked Asian gangster holding a crow bar jumps out of the trunk of your car?
The names of the main cast include actors who have yet to reach the achievement of becoming household names, but this movie might just make them all stars. Cooper achieved some level of fame as the villain in "Wedding Crashers," but in "The Hangover" despite how sleazy his character might be, Cooper in the end makes him likable. Helms' Stu reminded me of what might happen to Andy Bernard if he went partying in Vegas for a weekend. Although the real scene stealer in the movie is Galifianakis. The stand up comedian's character looks like Joaquin Phoenix when wearing sunglasses and asks a woman working at the Caesar's Palace Hotel if Caesar really lived here. You'd think he was just trying to make a joke there but believe me, he sadly wasn't.
"The Hangover" defines painful comedy. The onslaught of brutal physical humor as well as how-will-they-get-out-of-this-alive situations piles up and makes some genius cringe humor that sometimes tops the most painful levels that Judd Apatow has ever reached.
As I continued to piece the movie back together, I thought of including a sentence in my review that was a play on Vegas's famous tagline "What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas." But, I decided to restrain. However, it is very important to mention this saying as it sculpts a large part of the plot. It acts almost as a large deception to the characters; they seem to believe that one night of Vegas will carry no consequences. Obviously, dead wrong.
They also seem to be living the perception of the magical dream of Vegas. Well, they should probably put down that copy of "Swingers" and instead watch "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," because they of course end up landing in the ultimate Sin City nightmare. Rather than being another comedy living in the cliche of the Vegas bachelor party, "The Hangover" instead is a parody of that too frequently used comedic plot device.
"The Hangover" includes some one-liners I can't mention on this website and some situations so bizarre that words cannot describe them. And yet despite the significant amount of pain inflicted upon the characters, it doesn't feel like Phillips is at all making a mockery out of their suffering. Throughout the film, we actually really care about where the groom might be and how he could ever be brought back to his wedding on time. The point when you feel something for characters this ridiculous is the point where you know that a comedy is definitely working.
I've always heard that in most comedies you'll know from the beginning how it will end but it's the getting there part that is more important. The getting there part succeeds in its hilarity and unconventionality. This high level of original thinking ought to be applied to every comedy made nowadays.
"The Hangover" is the first great comedy of 2009. One image of "The Hangover" that remains in my head is Alan, as the boys are on the open road, standing up and screaming "road trip!" which seems like a reference to Vince Vaughn screaming "Vegas baby, Vegas!" in "Swingers." Well, I'd like to paraphrase "Swingers" in my praise for "The Hangover": this movie is so money, and it doesn't even know it.