The candidates for the title of Worst Movie Ever Made make up an awfully crowded field, but if the time ever comes to hand out the Medal of Dishonor, The Hangover deserves to be on everybody’s short list. Compared to it, Plan 9 From Outer Space looks like Close Encounters of the Third Kind. To call it “atrocious” and “loathsome” is to pussyfoot around the truth.
Warning signs appear early in the credits. The names of the movie’s casting directors are not followed by the customary union initials (“C.S.A.”). Nor are the names of the cinematographer (“A.S.C.”) or the film editor (“A.C.E.”). This fact alone isn’t necessarily bad; it can simply mean that the people involved haven’t yet joined their respective unions. But it can also suggest that they never will—and that you’re about to see why.
The plot concerns a quartet of men on a bachelor party jaunt to Las Vegas: Doug, the decent young groom; Alan, his dimwitted brother-in-law-to-be, who appears to be a registered sex offender (an impression reinforced later, when Alan makes suggestive use of an infant who has fallen into his hands); Phil, the best man, who resents his wife and child and hates his high-school teaching job; and Stu, a wishy-washy dentist dominated by his castrating girlfriend.
The four bachelors share a rowdy toast on the roof of their hotel. The next day, Alan, Phil and Stu wake up—or rather, come to—with no memory of what happened the night before. Their suite is teeming with chickens and other birds. There’s a baby in one of the bedrooms and a live tiger in the bathroom. One of Stu’s teeth is missing. So is the mattress from Doug’s bed. And so is Doug.
Years ago, I had occasion to work with a fine actor named Elliott Street. I had recently seen him in The Harrad Experiment, from the 1960s novel about an experimental free-love college. It wasn’t a bad movie, but as part of its let-your-own-thing-all-hang-out theme, Street had to play a scene with full-frontal nudity. He cringed at the memory. “Y’know, I didn’t want to do that picture,” he said. “In fact, I turned them down three times. When they came back the fourth time, I’d been laying off for a while and I needed the money, so … ”
If you think I’ve gone off on this nostalgic tangent as a way of avoiding talking about The Hangover, well, yes, there is that. But I also have a point: The acting profession is just about the toughest line of work anyone can go into. At any given moment, there is 95 percent unemployment, and of the 5 percent who are working, 10 percent of them are making 60 percent of the money. An actor has to eat and pay the bills, and roles like Hamlet or Hedda Gabler are not plentiful; sooner or later, you may find yourself taking on some jobs you’re not entirely proud of.
I thought of Elliott Street as I watched the cast of The Hangover going through the tawdry, septic motions of the script. Out of consideration for what they’ve already been through, I won’t name any of them here. They’ve suffered enough. They seem to have talent, and to be doing their best. But if any of them go on to win the American Film Institute Life Achievement Award, there won’t be any clips from The Hangover shown at the ceremony.
The people behind the camera—what we shall laughingly call “the creative team”—deserve no such courtesy. They are director Todd Phillips and writers Jon Lucas and Scott Moore (who hereby forfeit any credit for their passable work on Ghosts of Girlfriends Past). No doubt they had visions of Kevin Smith or Judd Apatow as they perpetrated The Hangover. But Smith and Apatow have a geniality and perceptivity that undergird their profane ribaldry. The Hangover has only ugliness—the borderline child abuse of Alan with the baby, matched by a similar elder abuse with a hapless old extra in a hospital scene, stripped naked and ridiculed for his aging, wrinkled flesh. Throw in random, gratuitous spurts of racism, sexism and homophobia, and the movie plumbs depths that make you wonder if there can ever again be a working definition of obscenity.
If Phillips, Lucas and Moore are really set on careers in the movie business, maybe it’s time for them to try tearing tickets or pouring Cokes.