I feel like I’ve been fairly careless about the way I’ve been throwing around Judd Apatow’s name whenever I review an R-rated comedy (this is the last time I’m talking about the guy in the first sentence of a movie he didn’t actually make). He’s been such a dominating figure in his genre as of late that he comes up a lot even in reviews for comedies he has absolute no direct role in. Apatow didn’t invent the idea of average joes cursing at each other and he didn’t invent the idea of raunchy comedies with a heart of gold at the center (Kevin Smith was doing both long before anyone had heard of Apatow). Going into the newest R-rated comedy, The Hangover, I found myself pretty much expecting Superbad 2 and just as it was starting I realized that was sort of unfair. Apatow did not write, direct, or produce this and none of the main cast had ever been in one of his movies. Instead I was going to judge it by the standard of its real director, Todd Phillips, a man with a lower profile but arguably just as much influence. Just look at the film’s main box office competitor Land of the Lost: it stars Will Ferrell who made his film breakthrough in Philips’ Old School and it’s a parody of an old T.V. show, a trend started by Phillips’ Starsky & Hutch. I wasn’t a huge fan of Old School, so that wasn’t a that high a standard, but as it turned out this is a film that could have just as easily stood toe to toe with anything the much discussed Apatow has ever put out.
Doug (Justin Bartha) is about to get married in two days, he loves his fiancé and has nothing but anticipation for the big day and even her family likes him. Before the big day though, he plans to have an epic bachelor party in Vegas with his two best friends. His two best friends are like opposites: Phil (Bradley Cooper) a pretty boy with a devil-may-care who’s ready to party, and Stu (Ed Helms) an over-cautious dentist who’s been thoroughly “whipped” by a mean controlling girlfriend (with a history of infidelity) who he inexplicably plans to marry in the future. Also tagging along is Alan (Zach Galifianakis), Doug’s brother in law who seems rather… simple. The film never comes out and identifies him as mentally handicapped but he has a habit of saying a lot of odd things. The four share a toast and decide to have a wild night. Flash forward to the next morning and the friends wake up in a totally trashed hotel suit complete with a chicken roaming around, a live Tiger in the bathroom, and a damn baby lying near the mini-bar. The only thing missing from the room is Doug the bachelor, and no one can remember what happened to him. Hijinx ensue as the four try to retrace their steps and find their friend in time for his wedding.
This project doesn’t really have a lot of star power, none of the cast members were a big part of the Frat Pack or the Apatow crew, none of them are former SNL members, hell the most famous name here is Ed Helms, a former Daily Show correspondent with a supporting role on “The Office.” None of these actors really standout, the film shows no evidence that any of them could carry a film by themselves, but together they have great chemistry. I think the producers were willing to make this studio comedy without star power is that, unlike a lot of recent comedies, this focuses a lot more on plot than characters. This isn’t a film about the characters coming to grips with their own mediocrity, or trying to struggle with the pros and cons of settling down, in fact no one really grows over the course of the film. Instead the movie is entirely about seeing how these guys are going to solve the problem they’ve put themselves in.
Usually people place a lot of the credit for comedies like this on the actors and their improvisations, but I suspect that a lot more of this film is derived from its script. The story presents a pretty legitimate mystery/puzzle for the protagonists, which seems to take another wacky turn every step of the way. The characters continuously react to these turns with increasing desperate wit. This isn’t a comedy that’s of no value without the laughs; it has a story that can more or less hold its own. The situations are almost as important as the reactions, in a lot of comedies it’s all about the reactions.
Vegas is a pretty good location for all this, it is after all the place dedicated to sin and excess. Yet, as the characters pass the Las Vegas sign the soundtrack isn’t playing “Viva Las Vegas,” it’s playing an ominous Kanye West song called “Can’t Tell Me Nothing,” from that point you realize this city has nothing but unpleasantness in store for these guys. The film takes a pretty old school approach to the city, this place doesn’t look like a family resort, it seems like a shady place that can lead to no good. The city seems mainly to be populated with hookers, disreputable celebrities, and cops sick of arrogant tourists causing senseless acts of drunken vandalism.
My only major complaint is with the film’s ending which I feel is something of a copout. I’m going to have to go into spoiler territory to explain this so avert your eyes from this paragraph if you don’t want to know the ending. In the last fifteen minutes the characters are basically able to solve all their problems and the whole think is wrapped up into a perfect bow. This is basically a get out of jail free card for people who have done nothing to earn it. I’m not saying the film needed a completely grim ending but the ending it did have seemed completely incongruous with the darker version of Vegas seen earlier in the film. The ending was such an abrupt left turn that I suspect it was a last minute change in reaction to test screenings or something. This ending basically turns the menacing Vegas from the opening scenes into the consequence free playground that the cities advertising campaigns want you to think it is. I wouldn’t go so far as to say this magical happy ending is disastrous, but it is a major flaw in an otherwise excellent comedy.
This is not really the easiest movie to analyze. It basically comes down to the fact that it’s really really funny. It’s a rowdy affair and if you dig these kinds of movies this is going to be worth your time, if you haven’t liked these kinds of movies this will be no exception. I do like these movies, so I found myself laughing pretty hard the whole way through, these many laughs are more than enough to overcome its poor ending. After the ambitious but disappointing Observe and Report this is exactly what I needed.
***1/2 out of Four