Sunday, June 21, 2009

The Hangover - There is a War

I finally got around to watching The Hangover, a film I had been blithely overlooking on the assumption that it was yet another funny trailer expanded to 90 minutes of painfully inept laugh lines. I had been on this course until the critical reviews came out so favorably and The Film Talk podcast (Jett Loe and Gareth Higgins) had such a lively disagreement over it. Gareth:

Jett’s of the mind that ‘The Hangover’ is a subversive and thoughtful movie; on the other hand, I experienced it as a celebration of idiocy and selfishness that lionises ‘an absurd childish ritual involving sex drugs and a waste of money. It’s in love with a particular kind of youthfulness, it also manages to be both homophobic and racist, and it underlines the individualism that is at the root of why community has broken down. It made me feel sick to my stomach even though I was laughing every minute.’

As for Jett: ‘It’s pro-community and a wonderful celebration of different cultures coming together. It’s about joining community and growing up. It’s a brilliant, transgressive picture. I didn’t just laugh during this film, I laughed harder and louder than in recent memory…[It's] occupying a mythic space of our consciousness. Feels very Greek to me.’
Who could resist stepping in to adjudicate such a stark stalemate? Someone not willing to toss $8 into the opportunity? Sure. Someone who genuinely doesn't care? Obviously. But not this blogger.

It turns out I think both are wrong, but I think Gareth's dismissal is more wrong: this is not a film to jettison with sniffling about homophobia, racism, sexism, childishness, or similar easy-bake insights. On the other hand, I question whether Jett's use of "transgressive" imparts anything beyond a belief that he counts himself on the inside of one or more inside jokes, and I especially question whether the film affirms any idea of "growing up."

I do think theories of maturity are at the center of the film, and that the film works through these theories only to conclude, in the end, that ... there are contending theories of maturity.

The film follows the Shakespearean formula of altering the scene from the city -- Los Angeles, the locus of parents, kids, jobs, marriage, etc. -- to the wilderness -- Las Vegas, the locus of free-wheeling capering, spending, lust, etc. -- before bringing the lessons of the wilderness back to the city.

True to form, the film ends with a successful wedding back in the city, but the wedding scenes pointedly exclude the "I do" moment, declining that conventional climax and replacing it with a very different male-female interaction in which one of the men back from the wilderness declares I don't before the assembled wedding party to his domineering, uncompromising girlfriend. In this, he affirms the need for mutual compromise between the sexes, one that includes, yes, finding the deus ex machina (or series of them) necessary to be on time and in place for one's obligations but also, without apology, space for an independent wilderness where the rules will not necessarily be followed, and where even disclosure of the violations should not be expected.

What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, even in the context of a high-flying, affluent, status-conscious Los Angeles family. The justness of this is underscored not only in the happy resolution but more explicitly by the bride's father, who willingly sacrifices a cherished material possession for it (shades of Ferris Bueller's Day Off), having lived long enough to recognize that such is the inevitable collateral damage of what this film casts, fairly or unfairly, as an eternal conflict between male- and female-coded visions of maturity.

All well and good, but The Hangover was genuinely funny from first to last, so it's worth seeing on that level.

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