When I started writing this site over 7 years ago, it was the summer of “The Hangover.” This comedy sensation that came out of nowhere spawned Facebook wall posts and bumper stickers (remember those?) by the dozen. Lines entered the cultural lexicon at an unprecedented rate. Amidst 2009’s pretty great lineup of studio and indie entertainment, this was a film you wanted to go back and see again.
Obviously, much has changed since then. The original sensation went onto inspire a blatant cash-grab carbon copy sequel, and when director Todd Phillips and the Wolfpack tried to change courses for a third film, no one seemed to care anymore. By that point, Bradley Cooper reemerged as an Oscar-caliber actor, Ed Helms got bumped up the big desk at TV’s “The Office,” and Zach Galifianakis’ career began to sputter out doing similar schtick. Todd Phillips has only just returned to the directors’ chair, and unsurprisingly, he’s doing a bit of a career pivot of his own a la Adam McKay.
But do all these transformations do anything to diminish the original? Does “The Hangover” deserve to sit on such a high pedestal? Have all the rip-offs and imitators it spawned tarnished the sheen? Or, perhaps a bigger personal question for me … is the film so great because it came out around my 17-year-old summer? (A recent article on The Ringer made a pretty compelling case for why that year seems to always stand out when polling people’s favorite summer movie season.)
I rewatched start to finish the film for the first time in several years; I specify because I watched five to ten minute snippets constantly for the year or two it dominated HBO airwaves. The short answer – yes, it still holds up. Years later, “The Hangover” is one of the few comedies that can generate chuckles and belly laughs from home.
The film is a rarity among the past decade or so of fast-paced comedies that throw everything at the wall, hoping something will stick. Nearly everything sticks in “The Hangover.” Practically every other line is a joke line, and the cast delivers all of them with impeccable timing and intonation. Far beyond the obvious “It’s not a purse, it’s a satchel” and “I didn’t know they gave out rings at the Holocaust,” the film possesses a treasure trove of golden nuggets for rediscovery on each watch. (For example, pay attention to how Helms awkwardly pronounces “barTENDER” every time he has to talk about his girlfriend’s affair.)
The unconventional yet unstoppable chemistry between the three surviving members of The Wolfpack also serves as a tremendous boost for the film. Each actor plays a take on a somewhat familiar archetype: Cooper’s Phil the disappointed working drone, Helms’ Stu the neutered future country club dad, and Galifianakis’ Alan the bizarre wild card of the bunch. But “The Hangover” is less interested in helping them find redemption and more fascinated by forcing them towards their breaking points.
As they are forced to relive a night of drunken shenanigans beyond their wildest imaginations, we get to see their true colors. Phil’s dissatisfaction, when stripped of vestiges of civility, really looks more like outright self-loathing. Stu’s self-delusions of happiness with his controlling, puritanical girlfriend mask his arrested development. And as for Alan, well … there’s no explanation offered for him at all, which feels both appropriate and satisfying. (The other two films disregarded this to their own detriment.)
Of course, looking back at an older film can also reveal some blindspots. “The Hangover” looks a whole lot like peak homophobic Hollywood, both in the language used by the characters and the gay panic attitude that pervades many scenes. It’s not particularly sensitive to race or gender, for that matter, but it’s doubtful these characters would be anyways. In that sense, the film might not hold up well – or it well hold up all too well as a representation of its time. But irrespective of that, “The Hangover” should forever be studied and emulated for the way the film feeds on its own energy, barreling forward with ever increasing momentum and hilarity as it goes. A /