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The Hangover

If you want to regard Todd Phillips’s slapstick comedy, The Hangover, as a morality play, you may be rationalizing your compulsion—and most everybody else’s—to laugh at the vulgar antics.  Director Phillips and writers Jon Lucas and Scott Moore want to inebriate us on silliness.

If anything, The Hangover preaches that one needs to let loose in a group with at least one certifiable crazy person in order to truly decide which relationships and responsibilities are worth while in life, and which are not.

A soon-to-be groom (Justin Bartha) runs off to Las Vegas with two longtime buddies, a wildish high school teacher (Bradley Cooper) and a reserved dentist (Ed Helms) and with his brother-in-law to be, a raving maniac (Zach Galifianakis).  The writers, by the way, thought it hilarious to depict the future brother-in-law as having been arrested for a crime that is no laughing matter.

After the first night in Vegas, the friends and the maniac awaken without a shred of memory of what transpired the night before.  All they know is that their chic hotel room is trashed, there is a real live tiger in the bathroom, and an adorable baby—yes, a real baby—tucked away in their midst.  Also, the groom is missing!

In retracing their steps, they encounter, and not necessarily in this order, Mike Tyson (yes, the boxer, playing himself), Asian mobsters, Latino mobsters, vengeful cops, vindictive school children, a rather heartless physician, and the strange proprietor of a wedding chapel.

And speaking about the wedding chapel, I should mention that, in addition to having lost a tooth (poetic justice?), the dentist finds out that he was just married to a good-hearted and otherwise well-endowed stripper, who is the mother of the baby.  He first becomes aware of this by seeing his grandmother’s “Holocaust ring” on the woman’s finger.  The crazed brother-in-law responds to the shocked dentist with the line shown in countless previews of the film, “I didn’t know they gave out rings in the Holocaust.”

The writers do manage to explain that the ring “made it through the Holocaust.”  After all, they refer to the ring at least three times.  While crass, the joke does not mock the Holocaust as much as those who have silly and inappropriate responses to the Holocaust.  So does the film mock itself? It does deal rather shamelessly with the Jewish elderly, both in this reference to a Holocaust survivor grandmother and in parading around a naked old Jewish man in a hospital scene just for gratuitous laughs.

The “Holocaust” ring is reduced to little more than a good luck charm, or, rather, to a symbol not so much of marriage, but of awareness when not to enter into marriage, for in the end our dentist chooses not to offer it to the overbearing and nasty woman with whom he has “happily” been living.  (Is there a veiled assault here on Jewish women, or at least on the “type” of women to whom Jewish men are drawn?)  His friends remind him repeatedly that she has abused him and cheated on him with a bartender.  His missing tooth somehow ends up as a reminder that he has been too influenced by others (especially by that woman) and must now think for himself.

All the characters (except perhaps for the lunatic future brother-in-law) learn lessons about self-worth, the importance of family and, in the case of the groom, the redemptive desire to enter into marriage.  Maybe those who see the film will ponder over whether it was necessary for the characters to make these “discoveries” by rushing into a reckless getaway that resulted in physical bruises and near death experiences, risking life and limb and the esteem of others, and irresponsibly destroying property that was precious to the groom’s father-in-law to be, and almost jeopardizing the wedding ceremony.  But, then again, stopping to reflect on these things will make one feel foolish about laughing at all the stuff along the way.  Or will it?

Is there a hangover from laughter?

—Rabbi Elliot B. Gertel, published in The National Jewish Post and Opinion, September 23, 2009.

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