Todd Phillips  has made nine movies and he will make many more, but no matter what he does for the rest of his professional life, he will forever be remembered as the director of 2003’s Old School . It is his Citizen Kane , his Godfather , his Raging Bull . Everything he ever does will be measured against that film. The heartening news is that his latest withstands comparison better than anything else he’s done to date.
The Hangover  isn’t in the same league by a long shot. But it is an amiably warped romp that suggests what you might have wound up with if Hunter Thompson had been hired to do the script for a Hollywood buddy film: drugs, heavy drinking, a road trip, Las Vegas. It’s even got its share of fear and loathing.
Doug (Justin Bartha ) is getting married in two days. Best friends Phil (Bradley Cooper ) and Stu (Ed Helms  of “The Office”) have made arrangements to drive to Sin City for a blowout bachelor party and then back to L.A. in time for the ceremony. Along for the ride is the bride’s brother, Alan (Zach Galifianakis ).
Phil is a teacher who hates his job. Stu is a hen-pecked dentist who prefers to be called a doctor. Alan is, well, as close to a completely original screen creation as I’ve seen in years. Imagine John Belushi crossbred with Silent Bob and given to inappropriate behavior in the proximity of young children. Then add dashes of DNA from Jack Black and Seth Rogen. It’s a determinedly low-key performance that’s easily the highlight of the picture.
You’ve seen the trailer and TV ads: The four check into a luxury suite at Caesar’s Palace (where Alan asks the desk clerk, without a trace of irony, “Is this the real Caesar’s Palace? Did Caesar live here?”). They wake up the next morning to find the place beyond trashed — furniture smoldering, chicken wandering around, crying baby in the closet, tiger in the bathroom, the groom mysteriously MIA — and can’t remember a thing about the night before. With the wedding set to start in a matter of hours, the trio races against the clock to piece together what happened and locate their friend.
Much of the movie’s charm emanates from the gleeful absurdity imbuing every single piece of the puzzle that the three succeed in assembling against all odds. The surprises are too inspired to risk spoiling, so let me simply list a handful of things you’re going to see along the way, without compromising their narrative context:
You are going to see men Tasered voluntarily; a tooth pulled out on a bet; a naked Asian gangster attacking our heroes with a crowbar; a baby imitating a sex act; the groomsmen ingesting controlled substances with Carrot Top; and, perhaps in an homage to Judd Apatow, Zach Galifianakis’ penis.
The script is the work of Jon Lucas  and Scott Moore , who clearly have begun experimenting with hallucinogens, or experienced serious head traumas, since they penned the screenplays for Ghosts of Girlfriends Past  and Four Christmases . Nothing in their resumes even hinted the pair might have a story this deliciously twisted in them. Which isn’t to take any credit away from Phillips. His direction and pacing serve the material perfectly.
If I have a quibble, it’s that the blackouts are attributed to someone having spiked our party animals’ drinks with roofies (the date-rape drug). This feels like something of a copout, as though the filmmakers believed suggesting the four simply drank too much would make the audience think less of them. Unless I’m wrong, the whole point of the movie is that they’re going to Vegas to prove to one another — and to themselves — that, while they may be closing in on middle age, they’re still wild and crazy guys.
As missteps go, though, this is a minor one, and in no way does it diminish the film’s fun factor. The Hangover isn’t groundbreaking. It’s an intermittently flipped-out, reliably amusing affair with as much of the familiar as the freaky in the mix. Unlike a surprising number of highly touted titles already released this season, however, it doesn’t disappoint. It gets the job done, thanks in large part to the breakout performance of Galifianakis. It’s no Old School, but it will do nicely until Phillips’ eagerly anticipated sequel rolls out in 2011.