The best joke swirling about The Hangover is one you don’t have to have seen the movie to appreciate. It involves a heavily test-marketed comedy designed to appeal (through some pretty prurient and hateful means) to the widest possible demographic, and about which industry types were ”buzzing” for a couple of months before its release, splash-landing on over 3,000 screens to boffo business, and then being hailed as a “surprise” hit by all the the usual suspects. The real surprise about The Hangover turns out not to be its total awesomeness as a moneymaker (Can anyone truly be surprised by this development?), but the degree to which it is continuing to make money. This movie is becoming a calculated hit driven to unheard-of lucre by word-of-mouth and repeat business, yet—and here’s the biggest surprise of all (at least to me)—there’s precious little evidence that it’s actually funny. This high-concept comedy—three exceptional obnoxious guys wake up after an apparently scandalous Vegas bachelor party to discover they have no memory of the night’s debauchery and no idea where the guest of honor might be—gives us the clues about how wild the night was (an empty, trashed hotel suite, plus the mysterious presence of a tiger and a infant, for starters), but skips the party itself in favor of the alleged comic spectacle of these assholes stumbling about Sin City trying to piece together the evening’s events and find the groom. It sounds like a good idea, but the rewards of comedy are in the writing and the execution, and unfortunately The Hangover is undistinguished and unimaginative in both of these departments, not to mention mean-spirited and witless.
The Hangover at first looks like it might be of a piece with the current wave of Apatowian (or Apatow-inspired) examinations of what it is to be a modern American male, of which Superbad and Role Models are probably the most shining examples, with the slighter but still plenty funny Forgetting Sarah Marshall and I Love You, Man filling in the gaps. But whereas those movies invite us to look at the roots of various levels of culturally ascribed and endorsed male behavior and understand them as either satiric jumping-off points or ways into getting at the real particulars of male friendship, the jerk-offs front and center in The Hangover are presented simply as examples of the way things should be between men—we must fight for the right to get laughs by mistreating each other in the name of brotherly love, and we could do so if only those women would stop their harping and let us enjoy ourselves, and if all those strange people of other races would just keep to themselves, especially the ones who want to do vile things to us with their penises. Homophobia taints the movie from the very beginning—schoolteacher Phil (Bradley Cooper), who we’ll see stealing from his students to finance the Vegas trip, is heard on an answering machine instructing his callers to leave a message but don’t text, “because that’s gay.” Phil and the extremely bland groom Doug (Justin Bartha) beckon the horribly henpecked dentist Stu (Ed Helms) from their convertible with cries of “Paging Dr. Faggot!” And the gnome-like Alan (Zach Galifianikis), Doug’s possibly pedophilic brother-in-law, complains while being fitted for his wedding tux, that the “pervert” measuring his inseam is getting way too close to his shaft. If the foundation for some kind of investigation into the underlying homoeroticism that binds these guys was being laid, then at least these comments would have some context. But the movie couldn’t be less interested in this kind of tack. The only thing the comments are there to establish is the characters’ (and the movie’s) brash defiance of accepted restraint when it comes to firing up stereotypes and bashing them at will, without any apparent desire to deepen that defiance with elements of character and storytelling that could force us to look beyond the naughty bits.
As The Hangover chugs along in its rather rhythmless, fitful way, it becomes apparent that the individual elements intended to indicate the bachelor party’s astronomical level of debauchery—the tiger in the suite, the sudden appearance of a motherless infant, Stu’s missing tooth, the insistence of a pair of enormous thugs on doing damage to our heroes and their borrowed Mercedes—are not going to build in intensity toward a lunatic revelation of what really happened. These wild clues lead to nothing but scene after scene of the boys shouting variations on “Oh, shit! We’re fucked! We’re so fucked!” before moving blithely on to the next dumb-ass set piece. The tiger, the baby, the tooth—they’re all eventually dropped from the narrative without ever being exploited for anything more than just wild-and-crazy window dressing used to get us to a useless Mike Tyson cameo and earth-mother/stripper-with-a heart-of-gold Heather Graham, who couldn’t beam with more wholesomeness at the toothless Stu as she breast-feeds her baby (whoops, spoiler, sorry) and telegraphs her righteousness as Stu’s sexy soul mate. (At times Graham seems to glow like Glenn Close in The Natural.) And speaking of that Tyson cameo, it is both interesting and telling that no one seems to have a problem with a convicted rapist appearing in what amounts to a swipe at reconstructing his popular image—an image which includes positioning himself, in the reality of the movie, as a primitive, dangerous beast. The reaction has been far more gushing ”Gee, look! It’s that scary Mike Tyson singing a Phil Collins song!”-- the boys even marvel that he really does seem like a pretty awesome dude—than thoughtful about whether Tyson should even be afforded this kind of opportunity for image-reparation. (To no one’s surprise, his appearance here will eclipse the riveting self-portrayal offered up in James Toback’s brilliant documentary from earlier this year.) But you see, it’s Mike’s tiger, and once he gets it back he’s gone and we’re off to another dumb revelation of some piece in this none-too-fascinating puzzle, all of which culminates in a clichéd montage revolving around the Rainman-esque attempt by Alan to win back enough cash to get the creepy, mincing Chinese gangster (Ken Leong) off our boys’ butts so they can make it back in time for the wedding.
Each and every set piece in The Hangover feels warmed-over, amped for laughs based on sheer outrageousness and lack of feeling (Whoops! The baby bonked its head!) rather than a witty teasing out of that outrageousness with something resembling real, clever, motivated writing. And the hype machine is working in high gear now to convince American moviegoers that they’re part of something special, a phenomenon of high-flying comic altitude rather than just the preordained pop cultural by-product of an intricately engineered marketing campaign. What’s implicit and depressing about all these articles extolling the “surprise hit phenomenon” and the “stupid genius” of The Hangover is that we’re meant to care more about the movie’s status as a box-office stud than its quality as a comedy, as if all those dollars were the ultimate proof that the audience is getting what it wants. The packed house I saw the movie with last Saturday night was appreciative, all right, and definitely on the movie’s side, but there was none of the gasping, aching belly-laughter I remember hearing at Superbad, or Role Models, or many other movies far funnier and more deserving of the kind of attention that is being ladled indiscriminately on this turd. Strangely, the couple sitting next to me uttered not one sound over the course of the entirety of The Hangover, and yet afterward the boyfriend stood up, turned to his girlfriend and another couple they were with and said, “That was fuckin’ hilarious!” I stumbled out of that screening feeling as if I was living on a planet I suddenly didn’t recognize; the reception being afforded this crummy comedy is just as depressing as the movie itself.
Yet in the same movie marketplace, the exceedingly genial and dopey Will Ferrell science-fiction comedy Land of the Lost is getting killed in review after highfalutin review for being silly, or being gross, or (I love this one) being shaky on just who its audience is. I’m really not sure just how worked up to get over the mass dancing on the grave of this movie—after all, we’re talking about Land of the Lost, not Speed Racer here. But at the risk of flying the freak flag for another big summer movie given the heave-ho by audiences and critics, Land of the Lost won me over through its fearlessness over its own absurdity, by its cleverness (the brainy, sensitive T–Rex is a comic marvel at both the conception and the execution/animation level), and the fairly impressive quality it often displays (despite its huge budget and status as a product of a conservative studio system, however misguided that system may or may not be on a project-by-project basis) of seeming at times improvised on the fly, of being a $200-million shaggy dog. Those who object to the movie seem to believe, because the source material was a hit with young Saturday morning TV viewers in the ‘70s, that the filmmakers are somehow obligated to reproduce the kid-friendly vibe (sans gross-outs or bad language) or at least to deliver a product with a more consistent tone. That's what they get in The Hangover, after all-- a movie that trots out every stereotype on the way to flattening out every juicy plot point for consumption by the widest possible audience, a movie everyone can love. It’s a lot trickier to stay true to a muse which consistently directs one to tickle the funny bone by any means necessary, and in this disregard for safety in numbers Land of the Lost has a lot more in common with movies like Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (not surprising, given that both star Will Ferrell), or Blazing Saddles, or The Man with Two Brains, all supremely silly movies that both kids of various ages and adults can groove to, than to generic lumps like The Hangover.
In LOTL, there’s plenty of comedy to appeal to the infant in all of us-- a squirmingly hilarious encounter with a prehistoric mosquito takes the bug-centric gross-out comedy of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom to new and splattery heights; and Ferrell’s insistence on dousing himself with dinosaur urine as a means of camouflage is a classic bit that builds on the comedy of repetition and increasing returns—its roots can be traced through I Love Lucy to Harpo’s silverware scene in Animal Crackers and all the way back to the vaudeville stage, but we’re supposed to play the sophistication card here and give it the pooh-pooh treatment (pun entirely intended) because the gag involves piss (and gagging on piss). In general, the movie is situated squarely and honorably on the landscape of silly, absurd adventure that is also populated by the likes of the Abbott and Costello films, the Hope/Crosby “Road” pictures, and even comedy hybrids like Don Ameche and the Ritz Brothers’ version of The Three Musketeers-- its anything-goes grab-bag approach to tone and sensibility is one it shares with these movies and the others mentioned above.
The real puzzler brought to the forefront by the rejection of Land of the Lost is in considering exactly when silliness as an end became something to either be ghettoized (in the Scary/Date/Epic Movie subgenre of kitchen-sink parody) or shunned altogether. We’ve already seen what being labeled “silly” or being associated with a comic approach can do to the box office prospects of horror films—the boldly satiric Seed of Chucky was trounced by the far more sober and literal shocks delivered by Saw in 2005, and this summer no amount of rave reviews or positive advance word from the Cannes Film Festival could convince the core horror audience that Drag Me to Hell was a trip worth taking because as much emphasis was put on its laughs as its scares in the reviews and even the advertising. Now it’s apparently a crime for a Will Ferrell movie to be silly, which begs the question: Did anyone who saw the trailer for Land of the Lost, a trailer which accurately indicates its irreverent approach, go into it expecting Jurassic Park IV? And as far as parents worried that the raunch factor might be too much for their kids who might be interested, it is not unreasonable to do what I did—see it for yourself first before deciding whether your offspring are too sensitive for the raucous absurdities that lie within. (My personal verdict: I enjoyed it immensely, took the girls to see it the very next day, and we all laughed like misguided hyenas.)
I was not surprised that a movie which gets great comic mileage out of Dr. Rick Marshall (Ferrell) and his food issues would make me laugh uproariously-- unable to bring himself to test his new time machine/boom box contraption, Marshall goes on a fast-food binge and plunges into a calorie-induced coma, which he then lovingly describes upon regaining consciousness to his adoring assistant, Holly, played with spirit and good sportsmanship by Anna Friel (“I thought an Arby’s value meal might inspire my confidence. But then I hit Del Taco…”) Nor was I surprised to be amused by the way the heavy-lidded Danny McBride, as Will, a redneck tour guide who joins Marshall and Holly on heir “routine expedition” gone wrong, sets the foundation of a hilarious scene in which he, Marshall and primate sidekick Cha-ka (Jorma Taccone) end up psychedelically distracted from the mechanics of the recognizably silly (there’s that word again) plot by the juice of some local plant life, then lay around slurring words of affection for each other and contemplating an interspecies make-out session.
I was, however, surprised by the pop art beauty of some of the artificial landscapes on which these characters frolic-- a vast desert sprinkled with recognizable cultural icons such as the Statue of Liberty, the Golden Gate Bridge, a Union 76 ball, the remains of a drive-in movie theater, all half buried in the sand; or the motel whose neon sign sticks out from a dune but whose swimming pool is beautifully preserved and ready for cannonballing; or the bed of glowing pterodactyl eggs all perched on what look like stalagmite tees which begin to crack when the show tunes emanating from Dr. Marshall’s time machine/boom box come to an unexpected stop. None of these designs have much to do with creating a recognizable or believable alternate universe for our heroes to discover; it’s the eerie surrealism of these landscapes, coupled with the fact that they all coexist amongst radically different climates—a geologic mash-up of jungle, desert, volcanic mountain range—that evolves from mere set design into another form of elaborate, rather lovely joke to compliment and balance the crude wackiness of the rest of the show.
Some have concerned themselves about what the mere presence of Land of the Lost means, as if it was some demarcation of how far absurd humor can go before it eats itself. At the risk of being annoying or overly simplistic, this kind of concern seems, at the very least, unnecessary. Those who made the movie and allowed it to be put out into the hostile marketplace and die will undoubtedly pay, to one degree or another, with their reputations or perhaps even their jobs, current and future. But it’s hard to see how the movie itself is an occasion for fretting. It’s a genial, rambling, goofy comedy that colors outside of the lines and belies its blockbuster origins with its ability to at times appear as shambling and care-free as Will, Marshall and Cha-ka tripping poolside. And the confusion of the majority of reviewers over just who composes the movie’s intended audience seems like a pretty easy nut to crack—it’s a movie made not for an age demographic but for anyone who happens to find him/herself on the same wavelength, who happens to find it chock full of laughs, big ones and little ones. Comedies that are created from some sort of inspiration rather than slavish adherence to what they expect will make the most people laugh most of the time are inherently risky propositions, and when they don’t work the sound of crickets chirping can be deafening. But when they do work—and I contend that most of the time Land of the Lost works—they’ll connect you with the giddy kid inside, someone who knows it’s no crime to be silly.
Tony Scott’s unnecessary remake of The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 isn’t, for its first two-thirds anyway, too bad. The basic premise, taken from John Godey’s novel and Joseph Sargent’s terrific 1974 version, which starred Walter Matthau as a casually racist, beleaguered transit author official locked into a subway hostage drama set in motion by the terse, magnificent intimidating Robert Shaw, has been adapted by Scott and writer Brian Helgeland to reflect an awareness of the manipulation of global economics. But this stab at timely verisimilitude feels like baggage that the stripped–down structure ultimately can’t bear. Shaw’s clipped-cadence ex-military man becomes John Travolta’s over-the-top, incongruously tattooed commodities broker (Would you trust your money to a guy with a Freddie Mercury ‘do and mustache and a garish crucifix creeping up his neck?), whereas Matthau’s legacy is given over to the somewhat more reliable Denzel Washington whose character is meant to reflect, in that hoary action-movie way, a similarity, in terms of moral underpinnings, to the bad guy—he’s a disgraced MTA bigwig accused of taking a bribe; we find out he’s guilty as charged, but he did it for honorable reasons. (Cue a rare slowing of Scott’s spastic stylistic strategies—camera movement, alternating film stocks, high-speed editing, the surveillance satellite as an overriding visual motif—and the requisite swelling of strings on the soundtrack.)
Still, for all the swiveling, gyrating camerawork and general sense of pointless dislocation, the movie does hold a certain level of interest because of that basic premise. What it can’t manage is the build-up of much excitement, even though you know instinctively that such a build-up is at least ostensibly the motivation behind all the camera pyrotechnics. For all of Scott’s visual sturm und drang, the ultimate effect is a weird kind of stasis, an awareness of the technique that constantly throws you out of the enveloping effect of the story. But soon enough the coincidences and absurdities start piling up and what little we have invested in the movie evaporates anyway, just about the time, ironically, that the film abandons its stopped-subway-car scenario for one involving a train and a band of hijackers suddenly on the move. A crucial plot point involving the fate of a runaway train car, which was clear as a bell in the 1974 version, seems to have gone missing. And I couldn’t help wondering, if one takes the trouble to present Denzel Washington, about 40-50 pounds heavier than usual, as a realistically sedentary protagonist, why one would feel the need to press him into service as a standard-issue action hero running full gallop down Manhattan streets in pursuit of the dispersing bad guys, with no acknowledgment of the kind of respiratory crisis anyone in the real world would no doubt be experiencing in a similar situation? Wheeze or no wheeze, Washington’s XL frame hurtles absurdly toward a face-off with Travolta, but by this point the runaway train has already crashed. The climactic scene between the stars features an excess of histrionics but not an ounce of the punch provided by the simple sneeze that punctuates the original.
Way back in 1927 H.L. Mencken, writing in his Appendix from Moronia, got himself in a lather about the emerging art form of the movies. Mencken was specifically targeting the effect of movies on acting and actors, but, for purposes of amusement as well as evidence of Mencken’s prescience, read this passage in the context of films 82 years removed from the author’s discontent:
”What afflicts the movies is not an unpalatable content so much as an idiotic and irritating technic. The first moving-pictures, as I remember them 30 years ago, presented more of less continuous scenes. They were played like ordinary plays, and so one could follow them lazily and at ease. But the modern movie is no such organic whole; it is simply a maddening chaos of discrete fragments. The average scene, if the two shows I attempted were typical, cannot run for more than six or seven seconds. Many are far shorter, and very few are appreciably longer. The result is confusion horribly confounded. How can one work up any rational interest in a fable that changes its locale and its characters 10 times a minute? Worse, this dizzying jumping about is plainly unnecessary; all it shows is the professional incompetence of the gilded pants-pressers, decayed actors and other such half-wits to whom the making of movie seems to be entrusted. Unable to imagine a sequence of coherent scenes, and unprovided with a sufficiency of performers capable of playing them if they were imagined, these preposterous mountebanks are reduced to the childish device of avoiding action altogether. Instead of it they present what is at bottom nothing but a poorly articulated series of meaningless postures and grimaces. One sees a ham cutting a face, and then on sees his lady co-star squeezing a tear—and so on, endlessly. These mummers cannot be whisked off. If, a the first attempt upon a scene, the right attitude is not struck, then all they have to do is keep on trying until they strike it. On those terms a chimpanzee could play Hamlet, or even Juliet... Try to imagine the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet in a string of 50 flashes—first Romeo taking his station and spitting on his hands, then Juliet with her head as big as a hay-wagon, then the two locked in a greasy kiss, then the Nurse taking a drink of gin, then Romeo rolling his eyes, and so on. If you can imagine it, then you ought to be in Hollywood, dodging bullets and amassing wealth.”
So we know what the great American journalist and author, this great American satirist, this great American crank, might have to say about Franco Zefferelli and Baz Luhrmann. Just imagine the words that might have been spun had H.L. Mencken ever encountered a Tony Scott film.