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The Hangover

*The Hangover (R)

Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Hollywood Interquest, Tinseltown

There's a moment about a third of the way into The Hangover when the drolly uncool oaf played by Zach Galifianakis tries to supply his companions with a little context for the adventure they're having.

"... It's got Ted Danson, and Magnum, P.I., and that Jewish actor..." he starts to say before the pressing action of the scene interrupts him. He never gets to finish his thought. He doesn't have to.

It's this moment that holds the key to The Hangover's excellence. To understand it will require two things. First, an allowance that the word "excellence" may be used to describe a comedy about three groomsmen (Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms and Galifianakis) getting so wrecked at a Vegas bachelor party that they lose their memories and their groom (Justin Bartha). Second, the willingness to appreciate a film that makes short work of acknowledging its similarity to Three Men and a Baby.

There are other movie references in here, too — some more obvious than others, all equally offhand. The whole thing, with its plot-mandated mystery, menace and urgency, might even be reckoned as a classic film-noir scenario, except that it's been retooled for the comedy of dumbassery.

And that's how The Hangover's easygoing self-awareness works. It knows perfectly well how cheap it is, and doesn't let that or anything else slow it down. Nimble, fun, funny, over-the-top, not too tedious or completely lame, it's almost exactly the opposite of how its own trailer makes it seem.

So, what the hell did happen last night? Where did that chicken come from, or the tiger, or the baby, or the angry naked Asian man (Ken Jeong)? Why is the valet bringing around a police car? How did Stu lose a tooth, and gain the favor of a perky stripper (Heather Graham)? What's become of Doug? No, not Black Doug (Mike Epps); the other one who's supposed to be getting married — today!

To these questions, perhaps the only satisfactory answer can be a slightly paraphrased reminder from Mike Tyson: We all do dumb shit when we're fucked up. That, and an outrageous closing-credits slideshow worth waiting for.

What a relief and delight to discover that The Hangover doesn't suck, given its origin as a screenplay by Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, the team responsible for Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, which did. What a difference a good director (Todd Phillips) and cast makes.

Being the best big-screen Bradley Cooper vehicle to date may not sound like much, but that's sort of why it is. This is a man who had begun to register as little more than a soulless, low-res Ralph Fiennes facsimile, so he's an inspired choice to play, as one critic put it, the group's "alpha douche."

Helms' buttoned-down dentist, the unlikeliest of bachelor partiers, is just as good, and then of course there's Galifianakis. As one person observes, on our behalf, "He's actually kind of funny." Or, as another puts it later, "It's funny 'cause he's fat!"

Well, it is.

scene@csindy.com

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