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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


How do you make an old concept seem fresh and new? I think the best way is to simply take the concept and do it well. The Hangover uses one of the oldest ideas in the book - that people do crazy, mixed-up, regrettable things when in Vegas - and maximizes its comic potential by going full-out, with no apologies. This is not a dopey/sweet Vegas comedy, like the bland What Happens in Vegas, or a nasty/nihilistic one, like the putrid Very Bad Things (both of which, now that I think about it, starred Cameron Diaz). Instead, it's the latest in a series of hard-R comedies to mix outrageous humor with a healthy amount of honest characterization.

The story begins with four friends taking a road trip to Vegas for a bachelor party. Doug (Justin Bartha) is the groom-to-be. His best man is Phil (Bradley Cooper), a married teacher who has come to loathe his domestic life. Another groomsman is Stu (Ed Helms), a dentist who is stuck in a bad relationship with a demanding shrew that none of his pals like. Then there's Alan (Zach Galifianakis), who will soon be Doug's brother-in-law. Alan is the proverbial odd duck - eccentric, but harmless. Probably.

The men make a toast on the roof of Caesar's Palace, and then wake up the next morning, completely unable to remember what happened. This is inconvenient for a number of reasons: Doug is missing, Stu has lost a tooth, someone's crying baby is in the closet, and there's a tiger in the bathroom. Following a series of clues, they attempt to figure out where they were the night before and what happened. Their journey leads them to a hooker (Heather Graham) that Stu apparently married, a gay Asian gangster, and even Mike Tyson. (Hey, it's all over the commercials, so I don't think that's a spoiler at this point.)

The Hangover was directed by Todd Phillips (Old School) from a screenplay by Jon Lucas and Scott Moore. They understand something very important, which is that desperation and panic are funny. As the story charges forward, Phil, Stu, and Alan find themselves in increasingly dire circumstances. Things become harder to explain. How will Stu tell his girlfriend - to whom he was about to propose - that he's married someone else, someone he doesn't even know? What will happen to Doug's wedding if they can't find him in time? How much trouble are they going to get into for lugging around someone's missing baby? The script is really a marvel of invention as it finds myriad ways to sink the characters deeper and deeper into the abyss, and this is where many of the film's biggest laughs come into play.

I really like how Phillips has assembled his cast. Cooper, Helms, and Galifianakis are talented enough to sell the material in first-class style. They play the story completely straight, knowing it's the only approach that will work for the material. We have to believe that their panic and desperation are real at all times. If it seems like they know they're in funny situations, it would all fall apart. The actors wisely avoid that pitfall by playing the material as though it were drama (because to Phil, Stu, and Alan, it is), and consequently ratcheting up the hysteria with each new tightening of the vise.

The standout is Zach Galifianakis, who seems poised to break out from this film much as Jack Black broke out from High Fidelity. Alan is a character that seemingly begs to be overplayed; he has a weirdo sensibility that often fails to conceal what may be genuine sociopathy. And yet Galifianakis never overdoes it. In fact, he gives many of Alan's most extreme lines of dialogue a subtle touch, as though he's almost daring you to catch the joke. This is a brilliant choice. It not only makes Alan that much funnier, but it also allows him to have a realistic echo effect on Phil and Stu; they are aware at every second that Alan could make an already bad situation even worse.

It has been said that the worst thing one can do is to analyze comedy. If that's true, allow me to simply say that The Hangover is funny as hell. There are moments here that will make you laugh out loud. I loved Alan's confrontation with a young kid in a police station. And the aftermath of Stu's quickie wedding. And everything with the baby. This is one of those comedies with a lot of "good parts" and great lines of dialogue that you will quote back and forth with your friends. The humor is politically incorrect (all the women are either whores or bitches, and the gay stereotyping of the gangster is perhaps a bit much) but if it were watered down, there'd be no point. This is, after all, a story of debauchery in Vegas.

Like The 40 Year-Old Virgin, Zack and Miri Make a Porno, Superbad, Role Models and a bunch of other recent pictures, The Hangover knows that raunchy, edgy comedies are better when the characters don't cross a line to become caricatures. Phil, Stu, and Alan seem like real people to us, and their frenzy feels completely justified. We care whether or not they will ever emerge from the utterly absurd predicament they have gotten themselves into. For that reason, The Hangover is a balls-to-the-wall comedy that consistently delivers.

( 1/2 out of four)

DVD Features:

The Hangover comes to DVD and Blu-Ray on December 14. You have a choice of the single-disc theatrical version, or the two disc unrated version, which is what I am reviewing here.

The unrated cut of the DVD runs about 7 minutes longer and adds some mostly incidental stuff to the story. Still, if you love the film as much as I do, seven minutes of extra stuff is a good thing.

The bonus features begin with a jovial audio commentary with director Todd Phillips and stars Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, and Zach Galifinakis. The foursome share amusing anecdotes from the set and joke around with one another. Their explanation of how the infamous "missing camera photos" were created is particularly fun. Speaking of those photos, you can find them (and all new ones) in a photo gallery.

There's an 8-minute gag reel that is one of the funniest I've seen in a long time, and which suggests the cast had as much fun making the movie as audiences did watching it. As far as deleted scenes, we get "The Madness of Ken Jeong" in which the actor ad libs a bunch of different takes of his scenes. These bits are even stranger than what he ended up doing in the finished cut, so it's interesting to see what else was tried.

In yet another extra, the Dan Band performs a cut musical number - their version of "Fame." This too is quite entertaining.

Slightly less impressive is "Action Mash-Up" - a 35-second montage of "action" moments. If you've seen the film, you've seen this stuff in context. Ditto for a slightly longer version of the "Three Best Friends" song. I was more into the "Map of Destruction" - an interactive feature that gives us mini behind-the-scenes segments related to places where the characters create chaos. These short bits are informative and fun.

Finally, a digital copy of The Hangover comes with the disc. You get a lot of stuff with this double-disc edition, and it comes highly recommended.

The Hangover is rated R for pervasive language, sexual content including nudity, and some drug material. The running time is 1 hour and 39 minutes.

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