The Hangover (2009)
by Steve Habrat
In June of 2009, America inexplicably fell in love with an overhyped and lopsided comedy about four unlikable idiots that wake up from a wild night in Vegas with absolutely no memory of their boorish behavior. Oh, and just to make things more interesting, one of them is missing in action and has to be found. You should know that I didn’t go into The Hangover with a negative attitude towards the film. No, in fact, I actually went in with a smile on my face. There was nothing but positive buzz surrounding the film and expectations were sky high. How could I not be excited? I walked out of The Hangover a bit perplexed, a little irritated, and infinitely disappointed. What was I missing that every other American was seeing? The ugly truth is that I really don’t see why people find The Hangover to be one of the funniest movies ever made. It looses steam after about twenty minutes in, has only one mildly likable character in the entire film, and the jokes consistently miss their mark or just deflate right before our eyes. For my money, Todd Phillips, who is responsible for this huge misfire, has directed funnier movies. Yes, I actually thought that his teen comedy Road Trip, which starred Tom Green, and his back-to-school romp Old School were much better than this dud.
The Hangover begins by introducing us to mild-mannered Doug Billings (played by Justin Bartha), who is set to marry the beautiful and wealthy Tracy Garner (played by Sasha Barrese). A few days before the wedding, Doug travels to Las Vegas with his best buddies Phil Wenneck (played by Bradley Cooper), Stu Price (played by Ed Helms), and Tracy’s brother Alan (played by Zach Galifianakis) for a raging bachelor party. The next morning, Phil, Stu, and Alan wake up with absolutely no memory of the previous night and a trashed hotel suite. As they guys stumble around their suite, they discover that Stu is missing a tooth, there is a baby in the closet, and there is a tiger in the bathroom. To make matters worse, Doug is nowhere to be found. As the guys try to piece the events of the previous night together and track down their friend, they are taken on a wild journey that has them crossing paths with a ruthless Chinese gangster named Leslie Chow (played by Ken Jeong), a kind-hearted stripper named Jade (played by Heather Graham), and the one and only Mike Tyson.
For the first twenty minutes, it is smooth sailing for The Hangover. The characters are certainly quirky, especially the anti-social oddball Alan, but they all appear to have some form of positive promise behind them. The jokes also seem to have a bit of sting, even if they don’t necessarily have you doubled over in laughter. And then there is the anticipation of something crazy looming on the horizon, especially in the opening sequence, which finds a dusty and defeated Phil calling up the testy bride-to-be and admitting that the group has really screwed the pooch on this one. You just can’t help but wonder what happened to these guys, as they look like they have been through Hell and back. After the guys wake up in a daze in their suite, the film begins slipping and it is never able to recover. Here and there, Alan and Stu will deliver a good one liner, but as the guys piece everything together, the laughs seem to dwindle. The events become more and more freakish to the point where it just seems designed to shock rather than amuse, and let me tell you, folks, it barely shocks. The guys bash a baby in the face with a car door, a naked man leaps out of a trunk, a used condom is tossed around the inside of a Mercedes, and a pair of deranged cops demonstrate the effects of a taser on dimwitted trio. All through it, you never once find yourself rooting for these guys to have a stroke of luck and find a lead on their pal, which is frustrating because you want to root for them.
The most popular part of The Hangover seems to be its characters, which many viewers have deemed absolutely hilarious and lovable when I see them as dark, troubled, and unlikable. Cooper’s Phil is built up to be the levelheaded one of the group but he really just comes off as a smirking ass that could use a good punch to the face. He is a schoolteacher who steals field trip money from his students and treats his wife and son as if they barely exist. I suppose Phil’s family is there to stand-in as character development but you get the impression that he sees them as more of an annoyance than a gift. Galifianakis is the one who everyone seems to rally around but I find him to be extremely stupid, random, and off-putting. Now, you’re probably saying, “that’s the point, Steve!” Yes, but there has to be some sort of redeeming quality to his character and there is absolutely nothing beyond the blank stupidity. He is just weird for the sake of being weird. Bartha’s Doug is bland and forgettable, which is ironic because the film’s plot revolves around his buddies tracking him down and getting him to the altar as quickly as possible. The only one who stands out is Helms as the whipped nerd Stu, who is constantly beating himself up for his drunken behavior. You can’t help but feel for him as his domineering girlfriend rips him up one side and down the other. As far as the supporting players go, Heather Graham turns in a sweet but too small performance as Jade, a stripper with a heart of gold, and Ken Jeong single-handedly rips the film’s climax to shreds as the shrill and flamboyant gangster Leslie Chow. I really can’t think of a movie character I have disliked more than Leslie Chow.
While the middle section of The Hangover sags, the film really crumbles when it arrives at its underwhelming and winded climax in the middle of the Nevada desert. By this point, Phillips and his cast seem to have given up entirely and just set the entire project on cruise control. It just sort of withers and dies in the excruciating heat while the characters stand around and scratch their heads. To make things worse, the big reveal with Doug’s character is hoping to be met with a giddy sigh of relief and a slap to the forehead but I met it with more of a yawn and a “that’s it?” response. Overall, The Hangover certainly arrives at the party to have a good time, but all the good stuff comes way too early and we are left with a bunch of stale shocks that hope to root the viewer’s jaw on the floor. I won’t argue that it has its wild and crass moments, but I can think of more than a few comedies that would make this hangover feel like it could be cured with a glass of water and an Advil.
The Hangover is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Bad Santa (2003)
by Steve Habrat
From the snowless southwest setting to it’s alcoholic, self-destructive tomfoolery, Bad Santa seems like an unlikely holiday hit. Just get a load of its sloshed opening where Billy Bob Thornton’s Willie, dressed as the skinniest Santa Claus you will ever lay eyes on, vomits in a snowy alley on Christmas Eve. It’s certainly not one you could put on for the kiddies to distract them while you wrap your Christmas gifts or gather as a family to have a few guffaws at. Bad Santa is bad, naughty, anti-social, raucous, dirty, ugly, and downright side-splitting if you are not one with virgin ears. The best part is that Willie clings to his bad attitude the entire journey, making him one of the most loveable anti-heroes in a Santa hat. It is important, though, that you gauge if this film is appropriate for you, as I could see some getting their panties in a bunch over Willie’s womanizing, violent temper, and treatment of the kiddies. I howled with laughter over his short fuse, especially when one tyke sneezes chocolate ice cream all over his white beard. The funniest part is that we really don’t hold his mood against him.
Willie (Played by Thornton) and his dwarf friend Marcus (Played by Tony Cox) pose as a mall Santa and one of his elves. Willie has issues holding his temper together and Marcus has to constantly keep him in check. Every Christmas Eve, they rob a mall and disappear until the holidays return, only to show up at a new mall in a new city. A year later, Marcus contacts Willie in Miami and recruits him for a new job in the southwest. After checking in to the mall and meeting the prim and proper mall manager Bob Chipeska (Played by the late John Ritter), they begin their duties. Bob begins to suspect something strange about the duo and he seeks the help of the mall security chief Gin Slagel (Played by the late Bernie Mac), who agrees to keep an eye on Willie and Marcus. Willie also begins shacking up at the home of a pudgy kid who he nicknames “the Kid” (Played by Brett Kelly) and his senile grandmother. He also begins seeing a seductive bartender named Sue (Played by Lauren Graham), who he develops genuine affection for. As Willie and Marcus begin to plot their heist, they find themselves at the hands of Gin, who figures out their history and demands half of what they steal. Willie also begins mentoring the Kid and he begins to show glimmers of kindness.
Going against the usual messages of hope, love, cheer, joy, and peace on earth, Bad Santa embraces degenerate behavior and a foul mouth that, if an open flame were lit near its boozy breath, it would burst into hellfire flames. It has the balls to go against “the norm”, which I absolutely love. Willie is pathetic, one who we want so desperately to loathe but can’t help but like. He is perpetually nursing a hangover, an acting style that Thornton excels at. I have to admit I love his as the grump. The other shining star in Bad Santa is John Ritter as Bob Chipeska, who steals some of the funniest lines of dialogue in the entire film. He plays an uptight family man role who is always squeaky clean. Bernie Mac hits a homerun as a smart-ass swindler who is just looking out for himelf. His negotiating skills will have you slapping your knees. It is these three performances that make the film a must see.
While Cox, Graham, and Kelly are memorable, they sometimes don’t hold a candle to the work done by Thornton, Ritter, and Mac. The story has enough outrageous and taboo situations (Chipeska stumbling upon Willie and another woman becoming intimate in a dressing room is a classic, especially a certain line of dialogue delivered with such seriousness by Thornton, I almost think he meant it.) to keep its one-dimensional message buoyant. It is basically the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, someone who rejects the season at first, only to finally come around and see the error of his ways. At least Thornton has the good sense to retain the disgust that flashes in his droopy eyes every so often–sometimes I think it is at himself. The love does come creeping in, even if it is in a rather left of center way. The film also rests heavily on irony, mostly by placing the un-jolly Thornton in the britches of Santa and having him display zero enthusiasm and a strong dislike for kids. It’s a joke that many may fear will get stretched a too thin but it continues to get us chuckling.
Bad Santa doesn’t do much to change the Christmas comedy through technicalities, as the film is rather flatly shot. Director Terry Zwigoff lets the script do most of the work, which usually means having one of the contemptible characters deliver a hugely over-the-top line of dialogue. It also relies on its shock-and-awe premise, leaving us asking ‘Will it go there?’ and it usually does. It’s a staple that raunchy comedies heavily rely on but we have become largely forgiving for it. It has boiled down to how far can the envelope be pushed and how much will audiences take. Bad Santa basically wants nothing more than to give the adults a break from the childish touches of the season. With everything revolving around the kiddies and family orientated activities, it’s the perfect middle finger to the season.
Bad Santa is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.