Celebration is always far easier than contemplation - and usually the first thought for comedy. But the rockier road is always the more rewarding, and among comedy, the one less traveled.
"The Hangover" is the return to relevance of comedy director Todd Phillips. The filmmaker had emerged at the beginning of the decade with two successful laugh-fests celebrating college debauchery, 2000's "Road Trip" and 2003's "Old School." Then Phillips tried to go mainstream. After two R-rated comedies he sought to widen his audience - and the size of his bank account - with 2004's "Starsky and Hutch" and 2006's "School for Scoundrels."
With "Starsky and Hutch" he likely succeeded on the latter count. The film was a hit at the box office. His next offering, the Billy Bob Thornton-starring "School for Scoundrels" was a forgettable flop, barely making back half of its budget.
Now Phillips has returned to his Hard-R comedy roots for another film that considers the joys and sorrows of getting so wasted you can't remember anything. "The Hangover" is the adventure of Doug Billings (Justin Bartha) a groom and his three best friends who give him a weekend bachelor party in Las Vegas. There's Phil Wenneck (Bradley Cooper,) who's the ultra-cool free spirit of the group. Ed Helms of "The Office" and "The Daily Show" is Stu Price, a dentist with a ridiculously controlling girlfriend. And rounding out the group is Doug's future brother-in-law Alan Garner (Zach Galifianakis,) a socially-awkward guy and the odd duck of the group.
The four arrive in Vegas, check into their hotel, have an opening drink and that's it. When they wake up the next morning that's all they'll be able to remember. Or at least that's what Stu, Phil, and Alan can recall. A day and a half before his wedding Doug is missing. Replacing him they discover a tiger in their bathroom and a baby in the closet. Their room is trashed and one of Stu's teeth is missing.
And so the three begin a detective story. They have to try and piece together what happened the previous night from the various clues they stumble across. They have to figure out whose baby they have and what to do with the tiger. And most importantly they have to find Doug before the wedding. Along the way they'll encounter bizarre characters - tazer-happy cops, flamboyant Asian crime bosses, a hooker with a heart of gold, and Mike Tyson.
The film is comedic gold. The dialogue is consistently clever and the characters are likable. Galifianakis in particular delivers a performance that should hopefully propel him into more film roles. Those who have seen his stand-out stand up routines in "The Comedians of Comedy" have been waiting for this to happen. It's also a joy too to see Helms getting an opportunity for greater exposure. Everything we've seen of him on the small screen has prepared us for the exciting performance he gives us here.
If the actors are to be praised for breaking new ground then the director is not.
Phillips could be considered the frat house auteur. That was even the subject of one of his early films. His 1998 documentary "Frat House" chronicled way-out-there fraternity hazing and reaped an award at Sundance but was derailed from a release when accusations were leveled that he'd paid fraternity members to perform "reenactments" of the brutal initiation rites that had allegedly happened. Because of a dishonest short cut his film was all but forgotten.
This event could be seen as a metaphor for Phillips entire filmography. "Road Trip," "Old School," and now "The Hangover" are all above-average entertainments that will produce plenty of laughs. That's about all they are, though. In choosing to celebrate his subject matter and never contemplate them Phillips fails to ever create anything of much meaning. He's not really telling the truth about his characters and his subjects. He doesn't marry his laughs to any level of substance. He creates overgrown man-children that lose themselves in frat boy antics yet all he does is mine this for laughs. He never asks his audiences to really think about why his characters find the need to do what they do. He injects no drama to enhance the laughs of his comedies.
Other comedic directors do and as a result have reaped the awards that comes from making films instead of flicks. Kevin Smith has been inserting his brain into his films starting with "Clerks," going through "Chasing Amy" and "Dogma," and up to his last effort, "Zack and Miri Make a Porno." Judd Apatow did it with "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," "Knocked Up," and promises to do it again with this summer's "Funny People." And newcomer Greg Mottola has done a great job of providing thoughtful humor with "Superbad" and the recent "Adventureland." Even "Borat" has a brain. Sacha Baran Cohen marries his over-the-top comedic antics with social commentary and his "Bruno" has the potential to be the comedy of 2009. This approach to comedy is the difference between good and great, a B and an A.
Hopeful some day Phillips will realize there's success to be had in making a film that can give us both laughs and serious thoughts. In the mean time, though, I suppose we'll just take the ample laughs of his hilarious new film. They're reason enough to make a point to see "The Hangover."