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A Vegas stag, self-inflicted amnesia, a loose tiger, a closet baby, Stu’s (Ed Helms’s) missing tooth, a lost groom-to-be and, you guessed it, jokes in very bad taste are all jammed into The Hangover?Frank Masi

The Hangover

  • Directed by Todd Phillips
  • Written by Jon Lucas and Scott Moore
  • Starring Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms and Zach Galifianakis
  • Classification: 14A

Rude, lewd and occasionally in the nude, The Hangover brings a collection of fresh faces to the familiar raucous male-bonding comedy.

Todd Phillips ( Road Trip , Old School ) directed this low-brow but sporadically inspired movie, and it has already earned a reputation as the boundary-pushing comedy movie of the summer, thanks to word of mouth and clever preview trailers.

Like Memento or Dude, Where's My Car? the movie turns on the question of amnesia. Three men take their soon-to-be-married friend Doug (Justin Bartha) for a blowout weekend in Las Vegas. After the first night, the groom's friends wake up in a Caesars Palace suite with headaches and short-term memory deficits. A runaway bridegroom is one of several pressing problems: The suite is trashed, there's a tiger in the bedroom, a baby in the closet and one of the friends is missing a tooth.

As the men try to retrace their steps from the previous night, they confront a fresh disaster about every five minutes until they find themselves, still without Doug, and on the lam from gangsters, policemen and one seriously p.o.'d prize-fighter. For at least the movie's first hour, Phillips spins these plot complications like a menacingly deft chainsaw juggler. At times, this feels like a slightly milder version of Peter Berg's generally reviled Very Bad Things , a 1998 black comedy also about a Las Vegas bachelor party gone grotesquely awry.

Although the script is credited to screenwriters Jon Lucas and Scott Moore (the team behind the dismal Four Christmases and Ghosts of Girlfriends Past ), The Hangover is consistent with the director's previous frat-boy comedy hits. You could easily draw lines between the three men here and similar characters in Phillips' 2003 Old School (played by Vince Vaughn, Luke Wilson and Will Ferrell as, respectively, a married cynic, a wounded romantic and a weird child-man). And the humour is less in the writing than in the improvisational skills of the cast.

The swaggering alpha male of the group is Phil (Bradley Cooper of He's Just Not That into You ), a married, too-cool-for-school English teacher who is bored with his middle-class family life and, naturally, is the movie's leading candidate for redemption. The most endearing is Stu (Ed Helms, who plays Andy Bernard on The Office ), an insecure dentist and die-hard romantic, who is bullied by his bad-tempered fiancée (Rachel Harris). The funniest of the three characters is the groom's shaggy misfit brother-in-law, Alan (stand-up comic Zach Galifianakis). The deadpan Galifianakis emerges as the movie's biggest scene-stealer, playing a creepy, childlike outsider who will do anything to be accepted.

Not all the men's memories seem worth recovering, but a couple of sequences stand out. There's an extended appearance by Mike Tyson (in a celeb cameo like James Carville's in Old School ), who is scary even with his Tweety Bird voice. Heather Graham shows up, luminously vacant as stripper-hooker-single mom, Jade, in a performance that feels like a reprise of her Roller Girl role in Boogie Nights a dozen years ago.

Outrageousness proves hard to sustain, and after a stomach-lurchingly quick start, The Hangover slows down and, by the third act, fizzes out like Alka-Seltzer in a highball glass. Funny turns queasy with jokes suggesting sexual abuse and with the arrival of a shrieking, gay-Asian crime boss played by Ken Jeong ( Knocked Up , Role Models ). The bad-taste brinksmanship continues right through to the closing credits with a montage of photos aimed to make viewers walk out of the theatre wondering if they saw what they thought they saw.

Criticizing a film like The Hangover for the weakness of its women's roles is like complaining that Sex and the City had no good car chases, but it's notable that, apart from the Graham's hippie sex worker, the women here aren't much fun. At best, like Doug's fiancée, Tracy (Sasha Barrese), they're beautiful, forgiving and a bit imperious, and when they crack the whip, the wild boys resume their places.

What do men really want? To be reminded that they'll live longer in a domesticated state, apparently.