A few years ago, while staying at a London hotel, Kiefer Sutherland attacked a Christmas tree. He did it because he was drunk. He did it because someone bet him. And he did it because life is only lived once. Men need have drunken adventures. In times gone by, men sailed the high seas drunk, they went into battle drunk; in the case of Ulysses S. Grant, they even commanded armies drunk. Today, we live in a macro-biotic, cubicle world, far removed from the wild exploits of our forebears. But we still have drink. And men like Kiefer. The new comedy, The Hangover, is a paean to drunken debauchery. Ulysses S. Grant would have loved it.
The movie begins chronologically out of synch. Four men stand around a wrecked car in the Nevada desert. They are battered, torn and magnificently bedraggled. One of them speaks into a cell phone. He’s telling his best friend’s bride-to-be that they’ve misplaced her husband. Two nights ago, four friends had embarked on a fairly white-bread bachelor party. Two days later, they’re minus a groom. The man on the cell-phone looks like a men’s fragrance commercial. He’s more dishevelled than traumatised. His only real problem is that he can’t remember what happened to him and his friends. He definitely isn’t the type who regrets much in life.
Bradley Cooper plays the kind of guy who smiles when he walks in on a bar-fight. Not because he’s a fighter, but because: it’s a bar-fight! You need a man like Cooper in the kind of situations that crop up in The Hangover, someone who’ll stay irrationally calm in moments of hysteria. Even when he breaks it to the bride that her husband is missing, there’s something in voice that relishes the predicament. Cooper isn’t cruel; he just prefers adventure over normality. We see it when he laughs at the sight of a tiger in his hotel bathroom. He’s been paying the mortgage and doing the dishes for ten years, and then, mercifully, this hits. While his co-stars boggle and whine at what Vegas does to them, Cooper gives thanks.
What The Hangover understands is that Las Vegas is hard liquor in a novelty glass. Vegas – let’s be honest – looks hideous. There’s scarcely a more maimed patch of real-estate on the West Coast. Think of it: is there another city in the world that’s only recognisable at night? Aesthetes don’t do Vegas; barbarians do. What Vegas offers is the same thing Lindisfarne offered to the Vikings: pillage privileges. Men come to the city to enjoy themselves in ways that are reprehensible. The trick to The Hangover is that it doesn’t chastise Vegas, but it doesn’t sugar-coat it either. It’s the thorniness of its depiction of the city that makes it fun.
Ed Helms plays the voice of reason in the movie. He’s the one in the poster who’s missing a tooth. Where Bradley Cooper looks like he could get comped at a strip club, Helms is the guy who asks the strippers about their kids. He’s a dentist, and he’s dating Medea. The scene where he has a showdown with his bitchy girlfriend is so cheer-inducing it’s like watching Rocky win. As Helms’ new best friend, Zach Galifianakis plays a man with the IQ of bubblegum. The word “doofus” doesn’t do him justice. He’s the kind of stupid that cults get founded on. Even his beard is eccentric. With his satchel and his pot belly, he looks like a professor from Patchouli U.
Kiefer Sutherland may not be in The Hangover, but the Youtube clip of Kiefer attacking a tree is The Hangover’s spirit. He is unabashed in the clip; a man without thought of the morning after. He’s seventeen again, if only for a moment. Drinking too much has always been about reclaiming youth. In the same way sex is death defying, drinking spits at mortality. We all know beer is bad for us, like red meat, like gambling, like lack of sleep. But in our hearts we long to not know these things. That’s why guys (and girls) go to Vegas, to let go of levelheadedness. The Hangover is like the drink that tips you over tipsy. It’s a merry tale of the abyss.