I love sleeper hits: those quiet little, unpretentious movies that don't employ shock and awe tactics to grab your attention, and consequently come with zero expectations. Moon was exceptional in this respect, a high concept, deceptively low budget, and extremely well crafted affair. It is destined to become a classic, reminiscent of proper sci-fi yarns that even predated my inception, like Silent Running. Kathryn Bigelow's latest drama, Hurt Locker, was just as much of a sleeper title, passing under the radar in terms of advertising furore, but capturing the undivided attention of anyone savvy enough to have given it a shot. On the pure action front, Taken was the sleeper hit of the year. With an anorexically thin script from Luc Besson, it was only Liam Neeson who saved this film from being just another lacklustre Man on Fire rip-off, bringing some much-needed gravitas to the proceedings.
When Judd Apatow and Seth Rogen first broke onto the scene with the hilarious 40 Year Old Virgin they brought a breath of fresh air to a genre which had become bloated with seemingly endless gross-out and spoof comedies. Knocked Up followed the trend to great effect, but the latest fare from the Apatow/Rogen camp, Funny People, was a little disappointing for me. Not a bad movie, per se, just not what I was expecting. When I went to see The Hangover I knew next to nothing about it but for a scant overview, and when I left the cinema I was of the opinion that I had just seen one of the best comedies of 2009.
The premise is simple. A disparate quartet of guys venture out to Vegas for a stag do, but after making a pact to forget everything that happens whilst they are out there, they wake up in the morning to find out that they truly don't remember a thing. Their penthouse suite is wrecked, there are animals all over the place - including an unchained tiger in the bathroom - one of them is missing a tooth, and they appear to have obtained a baby. As if things could not get any worse, they find that they have 'misplaced' one of their entourage - the groom, no less. The pressure is on to piece together exactly what happened on the fateful previous night, and recover the groom before his imminent wedding.
The Hangover is a pitch-perfect black comedy that will likely suit the tastes of those who loved 40 Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up or Superbad. It is the same style as all of the above, only with marginally less pop culture references, and a slightly less aggressive R-rating. Sure we get the Unrated version here too, but it's not really better (or harder) to any notable degree - just an amusing Indiana Jones reference, a funny extra bit with one of the characters abusing his position as a teacher, a pointless conversation in an elevator and an unnecessary segment resolving what happened regarding the prized car - so this remains a solid, consistently funny escapade that largely does not rely on gross-out humour or cascading F-bombs to make you buckle with laughter. (that's not to say there isn't strong and pervasive language, just not in the same league as Superbad)
The casting is also superb - largely a bunch of relative unknowns, each perfectly chosen for the characters that they must inhabit. Heading up the trio who have the most screen-time we have Bradley Cooper. You may remember him from his ongoing stint as the reporter in the enjoyable J.J. Abrams TV series Alias, where he was often a borderline irritation. His cameo in the amusing Vince Vaughn / Owen Wilson comedy The Wedding Crashers extended his range into playing - convincingly - total jerks. Here he introduces us to his character as just that kind of jerk, albeit a milder version who, eventually, we come to endure and maybe even root for. There's no massive self-realisation, or sugary-sweet moments where our hearts suddenly warm to him, but when it becomes apparent that he is in just as much of a mess as everybody else, he becomes infinitely more likeable. It is a strange, subtle character journey, and a decent enough (sleeper) hit for him to star in to pave his way to Hollywood stardom - because given his upcoming role as Face in the new A-Team reworking, one can only predict he's going to be the most famous of the bunch.
Ed Helms plays another one of the groom's friends, the submissive, repressed, hen-pecked victim of the group, who has to lie to his vicious wife in order to get away in the first place. Another relative unknown, those who lapped up the US rip-off of The Office (another prime example of America going for quantity over quality) will recognise him from that. But despite his lack of familiarity, he totally embraces the role of the put-upon Stu, the one without the tooth who finds his whole world shaken up by this particular road trip.
Zach Galifianakis is the real star of the show, however, playing the black sheep of the group - the groom's soon-to-be brother-in-law who has got some serious issues. Like a big, man-child, his total lack of guile makes him totally endearing, and he utterly owns this role. Whether reading his ill-conceived speech to the group, wearing the most inappropriate attire to go out on the town with the other three, or sporting the baby on his chest as he wanders about as if there is nothing odd to see, he is easily the funniest of the characters and gives the best of the performances. I've never really noticed him in anything before - not that he would be recognisable here under a Brian Blessed beard and sporting sunglasses - but, off the back of this, I hope he pops up in more comedy roles.
Although these are the primary roles, the cameos really make the film, from the delectable Sasha Baresse as the slightly concerned bride-to-be to the perpetually glowing Heather Graham as a bubbly stripper-with-a-heart who one of the group gets unwittingly involved with. She really does adorable very well indeed. Jeffrey Tambor (from the Hellboy movies) plays his usual witty self as the soon-to-be father-in-law, Mike Tyson has a punchy segment showcasing his appreciation of Phil Collins and Ken Jeong (from Role Models and Knocked Up) steals every scene he is in as this crazy little camp gang boss. His high-pitched threats and profanity are just too ridiculous for words, and cannot help but bring a chuckle to everybody viewer's face - whether or not the rest of the mix really tickles your funny-bone.
The Hangover really was quite a surprise piece of hilarious entertainment for me. Perhaps not as gut-bustingly funny as Superbad, or as sharp as Knocked Up, but it still really hit the spot. Whether it be the riffs on Rain Man and Casino, the physical gags involving the baby, or the electrifying encounter with the police and a bunch of school kids on a school trip to the police station, there are some potent moments in this jovial escapade, and it keeps up steam across its entire runtime. That said, the movie is not a perfect affair. I'm not entirely sure it is one for the ladies - being quite a male-dominated, lads' night out affair - and it may not be to everybody's tastes anyway. And seeing it for a third time did make me question its durability as a permanent new addition to the genre's classics - the story itself relies quite heavily on surprise gags, so it does not have exactly the same effect on repeat viewings - but that does not stop it being thoroughly entertaining, nor does it reduce its potency on first viewing. Only time will tell whether this one will make it to the ranks of the tops of its kind: Superbad, Knocked Up and 40 Year Old Virgin, but that does not stop it being the best comedy of 2009.
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