d. Todd Phillips / 2009 / USA / 100 mins
Viewed at: Screen 7, Cineworld (Liverpool, UK)
Aside from the risk of offending people, I think its fairly safe to assume that – with comedy at least – there is a very fine line between retarded and genius. Which begs the question: what can be said about The Hangover? Really. I mean…yeah, it was pretty funny, so I guess we should consider it mission accomplished, right? Review over? Well, yes and no.
Lets face it, the film wasn’t earth shattering. It had a reasonably tight script and some worthy performances, meaning the levity was maintained throughout. As expected, Zach Galifianakis stole the show with his usual – albeit very funny – screwball schtick, and had the lion’s – or should I say, tiger’s – share of good lines. But The Hangover also got me thinking about this kind of fratboy/bromance genre that has really come into its own over the last few years.
[ Danger, Theory Ahead! Please forgive me… ]
Now, maybe I’ve just been reading too much Simon Reynolds lately, but I’ve started thinking about these kinds of films – and Hollywood genre films generally – in terms of continuums. Reynolds writes about music, of course, and argues that despite the various start and end points being markedly different, it is possible to see a relatively broad and disparate genre such as hardcore dance/rave music in terms of a fluid continuum, a continual, multi-lateral evolution of both style and substance. In that spirit – but in much less depth, obviously – I would suggest the same approach could be taken to what I (very) loosely proclaim to be the ‘Male Orientated Comedy’ genre (or MOC, if you’re into brevity).
As far as I see it, the latest batch of Hollywood funnyguys (and they are exclusively male) have been hard at work over the last few years, keeping the MOC genre alive. For all intents and purposes, its a genre that began in the late 1970s and early ’80s when young producers, screenwriters and directors begun to appropriate the pace and cheap wit of 1930s screwball antics, updating them for a post-Hays code, post-summer of love generation. I’m talking, of course, about films like Animal House (1979), Meatballs (1979), Porky’s (1981), Revenge of the Nerds (1984), Bachelor Party (1984), and the rest. Each of these films managed to straddle the undeniably fine line between comedic genius and incessant stupidity whilst catering specifically for a young male audience with a heady blend of nudity, profanity and crude hijinks.
In each of these films, like a lot of Hollywood output, there is an unrelenting desire among the (mostly male) characters to retain their youth rather than face up to their adult life, often finding their last hurrah in the freedom of spring break or summer vacation (and, occasionally, that emblem of moral turpitude, the buck’s night). Indeed, high school, college and other educational institutions – from summer camps to police academies – served as central conduits (and targets) for a particular brand of crude misdemeanor fueled by a whole raft of fast and loose anti-establishment ideals.
As well as spawning an endless array of sequels, spin-offs and rip-offs over the next decade or so, this original batch of MOC films retained a clear influence on much of the young male-orientated comedy to follow. Once Ferris Bueller had taken his eponymous Day Off in 1986, Corey’s Haim and Feldman briefly held court with a more teen-centric version of MOC in the late 1980s, before Bill and Ted gave it a time-travel spin in 1989 and 1991, an idea turned on its head for Encino Man (1992). Though still highly dysfunctional, and undeniably stupid, the ‘boys’ seemed to have made a tentative transition to manhood (or gainful employment at the very least) through the mid to late 1990s in films such as Wayne’s World (1992), Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Clerks and Dumb and Dumber (all 1994).
The following year marked a character regression (of sorts) with the first lead role for Adam Sandler, a curious man-child who held off challenges from Chris Farley and Pauly Shore to rule the MOC roost in all its infantile stupidity for the rest of the 1990s. The surprise success of Billy Madison (1995) led to a quick turnarounds for Happy Gilmore (1996), The Waterboy (1998) and Big Daddy (1999), but even when the joke started to wear thin with Little Nicky (2000), stupidity continued to reign supreme with films like Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo (1999) and Dude, Where’s My Car? (2000).
But the dawn of the 21st Century effectively saw the MOC genre splinter into two distinct branches and gain an array of new figureheads in the process. The first branch, saw the raunchy but mostly clean teen comedies of the mid ’80s morph into something much more unholy: the high school grossout comedy, most notably the American Pie series (1999 – Present).
The second branch – of which The Hangover is a part – continued the frat-boy traditions of yore, tending to focus less on college students and more on young professionals in desperate need of a cold shower and a strong cup of coffee. Many of the films in this branch tended to involve the new king of MOC, Will Ferrell, who has mastered the portrayal of infantile characters struggling to come to terms with their role as fully functioning young men, most notably in a series of films which he also wrote: A Night At The Roxbury (1998), Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004), Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006) and Step Brothers (2008), but also in films like Elf (2003) and Semi-Pro (2008).
Ferrell also took a leading role in Old School (2003) – an earlier film by The Hangover director Todd Phillips – that deals with a bunch of disillusioned young males who attempt to recreate their college glory days precisely as a way to deny or delay their adult existence. The Hangover, in much the same way, presents a group of young males who, to varying degrees, wish to escape the realities of their everyday life, and its no surprise to learn that the entire film concerns a hedonistic buck’s night conducted within the ageless vacuum of Las Vegas, Nevada.
Incidentally, Phillips also directed Road Trip (2000), which combines the two recent strands of MOC film in much the same way as another MOC figurehead, writer/producer/director Judd Apatow. Like Will Ferrell, who emerged from TV’s MOC hit-factory Saturday Night Live, Judd Apatow arrived on the scene as a rank outsider from TV-land. Writing and producing TV for the likes of Tom Arnold, Ben Stiller and Gary Shandling’s Larry Sanders alter ego, Apatow moved onto cult success with the criminally underrated Freaks & Geeks TV series before finding his feet as a producer on Ferrell vehicles Anchorman and Talladega Nights. Apatow – often in cohorts with his Freaks & Geeks Fratpack of Seth Rogan, James Franco and Jason Segel – has also had a hand in some of the more memorable MOC fare over the last five years, from The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005) to Knocked Up (2007), Superbad (2007) and Pineapple Express (2008).
Although perhaps not immediately apparent, the influence of the original batch of male-orientated comedies have a lot in common with the more recent examples provided here. They focus almost without exception on young male characters, often at the exclusion, marginalisation or objectification of females. And these characters are almost always engaged in some form of denial about their existence as – or evolution into – adults. And so, while The Hangover may not be groundbreaking or revolutionary or particularly artful, it is the product of a long and relatively fruitful branch of genre filmmaking, and its position as a box office triumph around the world is proof that, for better or worse, the denial of youth is still very much a part of the successful Hollywood formula.
And now, to reward you for wading through all that unnecessary hardcore theorising (or skipping through it), here is perhaps Zach Galifianakis’ finest moment: