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"The Hangover," like the condition for which it's named, has some spirited moments, but more often it stumbles and slurs, regurgitating earlier pleasures and praying for the fog to lift.
Drinkers and abstainers alike would've expected a giddier potion from director Todd Phillips, whose "Road Trip" and "Old School" are the "Mean Streets" and "GoodFellas" of men-will-be-boys comedies. "The Hangover" takes its familiar bacchanalia to Vegas, reflecting a certain desperation that might be well-suited to economic downtimes (or Scorsese's "Casino"), but not to escapist farce.
Phillips, working without stars (another sign of the economy), starts in the desert with a trio of beat-up and hungover working stiffs wondering where their bachelor party's guest of honor has gone. Doug, due to get hitched in a matter of hours, evidently disappeared at some point during a long night that a subsequent flashback reveals to have involved not just countless bottles of booze but a crying baby, a snarling tiger and Mike Tyson.
En route to solving the mystery, our woozy heroes collect one or two distinguishing traits apiece. Stu (Ed Helms) is a clumsy dentist with a missing front tooth. Alan (Zach Galifianakis), brother of the nervous bride, is shaggy-haired and none too bright. Phil, a high-school teacher, is the ostensible straight man. But as played by Bradley Cooper, a moodier Matthew McConaughey, Phil is merely the least obnoxious.
One of these men jokes that Osama bin Laden took the political incorrectness out of humor on 9/11, but you wouldn't know it from the movie. Even without the details of the party itself, which Phillips rather ingeniously reserves for the end credits, "The Hangover" earns its R rating and then some. Taser-toting kids and a gold-digging stripper (Heather Graham) are among the film's vulgarly undervalued supporting characters, along with comically villainous Chinese.
Downward mobility is what Phillips' movie is all about. If the far funnier "Road Trip" and "Old School" were goofy daydreams of liberation, "The Hangover" is a fantasy of victimization, its manchildren getting bashed, drugged and otherwise humiliated, not often hilariously.
Phillips, a former documentarian, has been Hollywood's foremost authority on the more debauched of American male tribal rituals -- and a bit player in his own movies. Having cast himself as "Foot Lover on Bus" in "Road Trip" and as "Gang Bang Guy" in "Old School," Phillips here plays "Mr. Creepy" -- an acknowledgment, perhaps, of lingering aftereffects from "The Hangover."