07/13/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Bro-Hood and its Discontents -- The Hangover

Manchilds in the Promised Land...

What is the state of the American bro? Hollywood has been preoccupied with this question as of late, offering several recent, more sentimental, anthropological studies (mostly with Paul Rudd: Knocked Up, Role Models, I Love You, Man, etc.) that seek to examine the meaning of bro-hood and its discontents. We can now add Todd Phillips' The Hangover to this canon of films documenting the truck loads of anxiety and sublimated bad behavior always lurking just beneath the surface of "adulthood" and respectability. In many ways this has been the central focus of the Phillips ouevre. With films like Old School, Road Trip and his semi-fictional documentary, where he underwent frat-hazing, he is a director well versed in the codes, rituals, and rites of dudes, bros, and guys, who despite outward appearances of refinement or maturity know deep down that getting royally fucked up and the ensuing swan-dive into self-destruction is always the path to an elusive self-fulfillment in a world over-stocked with jobs, kids, and worst of all, women.

There of course could be no setting other than Vegas for our protagonists' amnesiac odyssey of bro-itude, as it remains the officially designated zone of legalized bad behavior for men seeking respite from the stifling vaginocracy of everyday life. Much like that earlier study of the fragile male ego attempting to navigate an increasingly cruel world, Swingers, "Vegas, baby" is shorthand for escape and all the fun you should be having were it not for the horrible self-negating constraints of adulthood. There is a definite existential quality to the journey, as our bros wake up in the desert and are forced to ponder exactly how and why they have arrived at this point in their lives. Our heroic dudes, here played by Bradley Cooper as the married schoolteacher and weekend bad-boy, Ed Helms, as the hideously henpecked dentist, whose girlfriend, played by Rachel Harris, takes sexless, shrewish, totalitarianism to new heights, and Zack Galifianakis, as the Pilkington-esque brother-in-law of their soon to be married--i.e., castrated and enslaved--friend. The Vegas bachelor party remains the gloried last-stand of masculine entitlement, the Alamo of immaturity, irresponsibility, and overindulgence--all the things that make life worth living.

The strongest part of The Hangover is the casting, particularly of Helms and Galifianakis, who in many ways are much funnier than the source material they are offered. Galifianakis' innocent stupidity and beardo-weirdo quality kept me laughing throughout, and Helm's high-strung, high-wire act, of a man who nobly suffers the lashes of the pussy-whip, is just about the only character with any interiority. I remain convinced that writing comedy for movies has got to be one of the hardest things to do as a screenwriter, as maintaining the hilarity for longer than 40 minutes seems like a feat that almost no one can accomplish. The beginning of the trip and the immediate aftermath of the night in question hold the funniest parts of the movie, and while there are some genuinely hilarious moments throughout, by the time Mike Tyson and the effete Chinese gangster showed up, the central gimmick and gags were getting more than a bit waterlogged. However, it all picked up again at the end credits, which featured a hysterical montage of photos documenting the blacked-out night in question that was as funny as anything that preceded it, and more importantly displayed a genuinely debauched and bizarre flair--such as blow with Carrot Top, and blowjobs from senior citizens. This was telegraphed in the opening credits, which seemed to anticipate the dark and hopefully, hilariously disturbing side of Vegas that was mostly soft-peddled even in this "R" rated movie.

Old School began with a wedding, and The Hangover ends with one--both featuring the same infamously foul-mouthed wedding band. The ceremony of matrimony may have begun as a patriarchal institution, but in this modern context of brohood it remains a monument to emasculation, the appeasement of tyrannical female prerogatives, and the destruction of anything that might even slightly represent authentic identity. What's odd about The Hangover is that unlike Old School, it offers no hope of escape from this outside of a lost weekend in Vegas. In this world, women are either strippers, played by Heather Graham (i.e., fun), or undermining harpies "freaked out by sperm" (i.e., enjoy the rest of your miserable life.) For a movie with such a dim view of women and marriage, it tries to have it both ways with the sacred institution. Even though Helms ditches his awful girlfriend, Bradley Cooper returns to his perfect wife and kid with nary a peep from the spouse, and the groom promises his beautiful bride that he'll never put her through anything like this again. Their perfect day remains unspoiled--a cop-out if ever there was one. The conclusion of the bro canon seems to be that guys must be allowed to cut loose, but following brief and blessed release in a segregated, corporate-sponsored desert fantasy land, must knuckle under to an inevitable and inescapable life of responsibility, children, and servitude to our brutal female overseers.

Perhaps more than anything, the rise of the bro-movie and its female counter-part, Sex and the City and all its various knock-offs, offers the proposition that for all society invests in the process of coupling, relationships between men and women can't possibly hope to be as fulfilling, meaningful, or fun as those among members of the same sex.