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Growing Up

by Ross Douthat

A review of The Hangover: Part II

‘There’s a demon inside me,” Stu (Ed Helms) confesses to his best friend, Phil (Bradley Cooper), near the end of the redundant, repellent, and occasionally amusing The Hangover: Part II. Normally a mild-mannered, easily emasculated dentist, Stu has just survived yet another alcohol-fueled, memory-erasing pre-wedding bacchanal. Last time (that is, in 2009’s The Hangover), he and his “wolfpack” — as the bearded man-child Alan (Zach Galifianakis) dubs their group of friends — were in Las Vegas, where they misplaced the groom whose nuptials they were celebrating, while somehow acquiring a prostitute’s baby, a fey Asian gangster, and Mike Tyson’s pet tiger. This time, sin city is Bangkok, the wedding is Stu’s own, and the short list of his overnight acquisitions includes a chain-smoking monkey, the same Asian mobster, and a Tyson-esque tattoo. (The longer list is rated R — and trust me, you don’t want to know what’s on it.)

But it’s that demon that stuck with me. The second Hangover, in a resonant convergence, opened just two weeks after Bridesmaids, the Judd Apatow–produced ladycomedy that’s introduced a wider world to the genius of longtime Saturday Night Live sketch artist Kristen Wiig. Between them, the movies exemplify two of the most successful subgenres in the crowded world of gross-out comedy. One is Dionysian and the other Apollonian (or Apatovian, perhaps), one is anarchic and the other essentially conservative. Their differences, in other words, come down to what they think about that demon.

The Hangover saga is the work of Todd Phillips, who made his bones with Road Trip (2000) and then made his fortune, and Will Ferrell’s career, with Old School (2003). His movies celebrate almost everything that happens when their protagonists let their demons out. They’re odes to male liberation, you might say: Whether it’s the hero of Road Trip cheating on his girlfriend, Ferrell’s ex-party-animal Frank the Tank letting the beer touch his lips again in Old School, or everything that happens under the influence in both Hangovers, a more authentic form of happiness is always just a drink or a drug or a one-night stand away.

The rival style, perfected by Apatow in such movies as The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, is about the gradual taming of those same masculine demons. It gets its laughs by letting its male protagonists act up, but its narratives require them to eventually give up their wolfpacks and settle down. As David Denby wrote of Knocked Up, Apatow uses the demonic side of masculinity without endorsing it: “He squeezes the pink-eyed doofuses for every laugh he can get out of them, but at the same time he suggests that the very thing he’s celebrating is sick, crazy, and dysfunctional. The situation has to end. Boys have to grow up or life ceases.” (This is not, to put it mildly, the attitude of the Hangover films.)

To date, neither subgenre has been particularly interested in the female of the species. They’re worse off in the Dionysian movies, which are filled with castrating nags and gold-hearted prostitutes, and whose vision of the ideal wife is summed up by Phil’s Hangover: Part II description of Stu’s Thai-American fiancée: “an angel with a solid rack.” But Apatow’s films, too, have been plausibly criticized for being interested in women only as agents for male maturation and redemption, and for expecting their female protagonists to forgive whatever indignities those “pink-eyed doofuses” happen to inflict on them.

Bridesmaids has been sold as a corrective to this tendency — as “Apatow for women,” even though he has only a producer’s credit — and it mostly lives up to that billing. But it does so, crucially, not by simply changing the sex of its hero(in)es and leaving everything else the same. (In other words, you can safely ignore the absurd media campaign praising the movie’s raunch as a victory for feminism.) Rather, it adapts the Apatow formula to female realities, confining the gross-out humor to a single memorable bridal-studio disaster and grasping the crucial insight that what can seem like a temporary heaven to a man — limitless adolescence — is usually flat-out awful for a woman.

The miserable female in question is Wiig’s Annie, a thirtysomething Milwaukee pastry chef. Her business just went bust, her best friend (Maya Rudolph) is getting married, and she has to contend with a bridal-party rival (the unbearably classy Rose Byrne), a caddish lover (Mad Men’s Jon Hamm), and various other humiliations associated with being single, broke, and self-destructive.

The movie’s major arc focuses on the angsts and agonies of intra-female competition. (“Why can’t you just talk behind my back like a normal person?!” the bride screams at one point.) The minor arc requires Annie to put aside Hamm’s handsome man-child in favor of a diamond-in-the-rough policeman (Chris O’Dowd). Both plotlines are very, very funny, and both mirror the essential conservatism of the rest of Apatow’s oeuvre. Annie’s demons get the laughs, but we never root for them to win.

Rather, we root for her to win — which is the essential difference, perhaps, between the Dionysian and Apatovian styles. In the Hangover movies, Glen, Stu, and Alan aren’t sympathetic characters in their own right, and their demons are the only reason to show up. In the first go-round, the sheer anarchy of it all was funny enough to send you home laughing. By the end of the dank, derivative sequel, you start to realize that you’re hanging out in hell.

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