This year I watched The Hangover for the first time. As someone who spent at least some of 2009 conscious, I knew about the franchise, but had never seen even a trailer before. At the time when the movie was at its most hyped, I wore mostly black and thought of myself as a tiny emo intellectual and above such things. Even when Ryan Ross, the original guitarist of Panic! At The Disco and my personal hero at the time, tweeted that it was really great and we should all go see it, I remained stalwart.
Seeing The Hangover for the first time in 2019, ten years after its release, is a weird experience. I was expecting a bro comedy bundled up with racism and sexism, something as generically enjoyable as a power ballad. Instead, The Hangover gave me something like an existential crisis.
It’s not as though The Hangover isn’t racist or sexist, nor that its racism and sexism isn’t significant. The film’s privilege and prejudice remains deeply conventional of the early 2000s, forming a nondescript, expected background to the shenanigans of four white men. The Hangover plays fast and loose with the power dynamics carried within stereotypes. In doing so, the film allows itself to pretend that there is an alternative, potentially subversive reason for the film’s treatment of women and people of colour. The marginalised figures in the movie are presented as the powerful ones: Leslie Chow, the Chinese gangster whose lisp and cartoonish, Bugs Bunny-style stereotyping are equipped with enough gunpower to threaten the beloved Wolf Pack; Melissa, the controlling girlfriend and requisite shrew for Ed Helm’s mild-mannered, geekish dentist, whose ultimate come-uppance is reached when Helms scolds her, “In a healthy relationship, a guy should be able to do what he wants!”
These are the figures who control and threaten the Wolf Pack. If you object to the film’s treatment of them, the film seems to be saying, wide-eyed and worried, that means you’re on the side of The Man, man! It’s not a particularly original trick – there’s a reason The Shrew was a familiar figure by the time Shakespeare got round to her, and linking people of colour with violence has been a white supremacist tool for just as long, particularly when in the case of underhanded violence or something that is not a fair fight – but The Hangover gave it enough of a facelift to leave it feeling freshly offensive, and deliberately stupid.
All the same, contemporary critics picked up on The Hangover’s racism and sexism at the time. (Less was made of the film’s homophobia, but also there actually isn’t much homophobia in the film: homophobia is its own threat to the homoerotic dynamics of the film. Allowing that queer people existed, even to make fun of them, might leave us eyeing The Hangover’s terrific trio and their aversion to the women in their lives a little too closely.) The New York Times, after pointing out that the film is “often very funny,” noted the “easy, lazy trafficking in broad ethnic caricature”; Jezebel asked “with such great casting, some excellent jokes and thrilling action, why rest on lame brunette vs. blonde, frigid bitch vs. whore stereotypes?” I’m glad that at the very least, people noticed the racist, sexist world of the film. What’s more unsettling in those New York Times and Jezebel reviews, as well as countless others released with The Hangover in 2009, is the accepted statement at the beginning of each: yeah, this film’s funny.
Humour changes, obviously, and it changes very quickly. It’s hard to imagine the absurdist comic standard of our time, the tweets and Tumblr posts that have influenced pop culture and given us an enjoyably nihilistic brand of humour, succeeding in the heady, autotuned celebrity meme days of 2009. For every comedy that has stayed fresh and winning – When Harry Met Sally, or Marilyn Monroe’s goofball and impeccable sense of timing – there are dozens that don’t make it alive out of their decade. Even before you take into account our growing sense that ableism just isn’t that funny, it’s likely that Zach Galifianakis mispronouncing “retard” would have ceased to be the height of wit.
I am, if anything, predisposed to be forgiving to buddy comedies. I grew up watching films with my dad and I’m tickled when people fall over. I watched all of 2015’s Vacation and even enjoyed it, so the fierce sense of despair that The Hangover instilled in me cannot even be put down to Ed Helms-fatigue, understandable as that would be. No: the worst thing about The Hangover is something that no one else seems to have noticed. The movie functions in an alternate reality, and that reality is heartless and strange. The Wolf Pack, who spend so much time bonding and announcing their bond, do not like each other. They don’t even really like themselves.
The formula of a bromantic comedy is pretty clear. A moment of crisis leads to a declaration of love and friendship, or an understanding of how the men (two or more) need one another: think Paul Rudd and Jason Segel in I Love You Man, or Wayne’s World, or any number of Seth Rogen films. But The Hangover never really does that; instead, a final brainwave reveals the location of the lost groom, and by the time they pick him up and return to the wedding, it’s taken for granted that the four men have bonded and become an indissoluble friendship. But we never find out why, or see it happen: their friendship appears, the film intimates, because that’s what happens in this kind of film. Even a final scene of them whooping in a car together is rooted not to some new joy in each other’s company but to the discovery of $80,000 worth of casino chips. We watch the men go through the motions of bonding without ever actually bonding; there is no emotional development, no sudden appreciation of one another. Why show friendship when you can take the formula for granted?
This is telling in The Hangover’s general approach, where a desperate cleavage to plot and formula overrides any sense of character or story. Every character outside of the apparently beloved Wolf Pack functions like someone out of a video game, an NPC who will politely explain exactly how and why he knows you and what you were doing last night. The result is a curiously smooth universe, one that is impossible to get a grip on. The set-up itself is the only conflict within the plot. Racism and sexism isn’t the only lack of humanity within the film’s universe – there’s barely a human to be found.
This strange, awful smoothness is what makes the plot so unsettling to watch, and the ostensibly chaotic plot is essentially just a straight line that, with the handy addition of the film’s epilogue, loops back round into a circle. Under this thin cover is a repressed anxiety. To some extent, this anxiety surrounds masculinity, which in 2009 was at a particularly bleak point: full of bravado, conscious of its own limitations but not yet in possession of a way out, unable to express even friendship satisfactorily for fear it would be misread. But the film is also anxious about plot itself. What are we doing here? How do we get out? It’s a deeply submissive film, fantasising about being told what to do, but incapable of even taking joy in that.
It’s strange to remember the heights of popularity The Hangover achieved. It was a critical and commercial success, the tenth-highest grossing film of 2009, and it spurred two awful sequels. In many ways, 2019 feels more threatening than 2009: Australia, the US and the rest of Europe in a right wing swing, the Liberal party firmly in power, the planet hurtling towards a series of climate emergency deadlines we seem unlikely and unwilling to meet. But I’d take this, eyes open, over the jittering, blind anxiety of The Hangover’s cultural moment any day. At least, from here, I can see a fork in the road.