Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
Since the 2003 release of all-star frat-pack rager “Old School,” mainstream cinema has been dominated by two divergent brands of comedy: Will Ferrell’s increasingly ignorable journey to the center of 3rd grade, which looks to reach its apogee with “Land of the Lost” this weekend, and Judd Apatow’s more mature universe of post-Kevin Smith four-hanky bromances. (Apatow, of course, generally has a hand in Ferrell’s hijinks, too. Collusion!) “Old School” director Todd Phillips has never been as sensitive a screenwriter as Apatow or had as cartoonish a comedic sensibility as his “Old School” star Ferrell, leaving his more recent efforts – “School For Scoundrels,” least notably – to languish in a milquetoast middle ground.
But “The Hangover” ups the director’s game with a ramped-up romp that offers both Ferrell-sized absurdity and Apatowian real-world raunch.
It centers on a new frat pack, on-the-rise actors Justin Bartha, Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms (playing a knowing variation of his henpecked Ivy Leaguer role from NBC’s “The Office”) and scene-stealer Zach Galifianakis as a black sheep eccentric who spends much of the movie without pants. The film opens like all great epics, in medias res, with Phil (Cooper) on the phone with soon-to-be groom Doug’s (Bartha) fiancée: “We fucked up.” Flashback two days, and the gang is on their way to Las Vegas to throw Doug a bachelor party, which kicks off with an endearing toast from Stu (Galifianakis) and shots of Jagermeister (“This tastes like college!”) before the quarter blacks out and manages to lose the groom.
The details of the men’s night out emerge slowly, but watching the battered bros pick up the pieces (and a lost tooth) leaves more options open than a tossed-off “Entourage”-ready hedonism montage. There is, yes, a tiger, a baby, male nudity, Vegas gangsters and too-brief appearances by both gentle giant Mike Tyson and toothy, beautiful Heather Graham – who deserves more screen time here and anywhere, really – and the best jokes come from the quartet’s agape responses to their escalating situation rather than their repetitive fraternal banter. While “The Hangover” features the requisite character arcs – mostly Stu’s (Helms) dealings with a tight-fisted girlfriend – it’s hardly “I Love You, Man.” But why should it be? Phillips’ boozy energy provides a welcome charge to the comedy landscape, and his return marks one “Hangover” you won’t regret.