The HangoverGreen lightIt’s Dude Where’s My Car? meets Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in director Todd Phillip’s low brow blokey comedy about three men who wake up in a plush Sin City hotel suite nursing king hell hangovers and, bleary-eyed and memory-deprived, slowly piece together the debaucheries details of what transpired the night before. Unexpectedly romping it in at the U.S. box office, The Hangover is on track to become a massive sleeper hit, even if it’s more a beer-n-nuts rental than a big screen must-see.

Unlike Fear and Loathing, the characters don’t wake up surrounded by every drug known to civilised man since 1544 but they do wake up with a baby in the luggage cupboard, a tiger in the bathroom, a mattress on the roof and a hospital tag around one of their wrists – all of which, at the very least, provide them with good conversational starting points.

Most pertinently they also wake up sans one man, Doug (Justin Bartha), the groom-to-be who needs to be rescued and delivered to the altar. On a casino rooftop the previous evening, the four men – Doug, Phil (Bradley Cooper), Stu (Ed Helms), and Alan (Zach Galifianakis) – kick off their what-happens-in-Vegas-stays-in-Vegas pandemonium with a round of Jaggers, one of them handed the lovely line “to a night we’ll never forget.”

It’s a where did I put my keys? comedy (to coin a phrase) with three amnesiac characters retracing their steps and dealing with the consequences of their inebriation; cue hilarity as babies, animals, drug dealers, Asian gangsters, shotgun wives and Mike Tyson pop up as spectres of the immediate past and entwine themselves in a fresh batch of shenanigans. Some situations work better than others but the pace and tempo is just about right. During Tyson’s first scene, the beefy boxer mimics playing the drums to Phil Collin’s In the Air of the Night, and I couldn’t work out whether this was an obvious send up of the Cadbury gorilla ad or whether it was wrong, so wrong, for me to have made that connection.

The Hangover is low-flying stuff, fer sure fer sure, but it’s also funny and smartly directed, with small flashes of style in the right places: there is a nifty effect used in a card-counting scene and one absolutely inspired final foot of film, during which a bunch of still photos are displayed with the closing credits.

The beauty of The Hangover is that it unwinds like a mystery novel. As the characters arrive in Vegas and prepare for the evening ahead, the audience naturally expect to be brought along for the ride, but like our mind-numbed protagonists, a black hole – slowly to be filled – replaces the night in question.

The movie’s stringy plotline is joined together by rudimentary red herrings: the hospital wrist tag lead the trio to the hospital, the doctor leads them to the wedding chapel, the wedding chapel leads them to a violent confrontation with gun-toting gangsters… The joins in the plot are so unashamedly obvious it’s like a Choose Your Own Adventure minus the choice, the breaks in the plot as clearly delineated as chapters in a book, staccato sequencing leading to one escapade and then the next and then the next.

The Hangover accentuates the difference between story and plot, having next to none of the former and stuffed to the gills with the latter. At times the screenwriting feels borderline desperate to keep the high jinks flowing, seemingly well aware of its narrative shortcomings. Phillips sometimes takes it too far, allowing cheap crudities like fat jokes to mar things that are genuinely funny – like the movie’s standout performance from up-and-comer Zach Galifianakis, who looks like a young John Goodman crossed with bushy-bearded Joaquin Phoenix. Galifianakis is hilarious as Doug’s weird, awkward and childlike future brother-in-law. If his next role is as as funny as this expect to hear a lot more of him in the future.

The Hangover’s Australian theatrical release date: June 11, 2009