By CHRISTY LEMIRE
You'd be forgiven for thinking "The Hangover" is a documentary.
After all, who hasn't woken up in a trashed Las Vegas hotel suite with a missing tooth, a tiger in the bathroom, a baby in the closet and little or no memory of what happened the night before?
Director Todd Phillips and screenwriters Jon Lucas and Scott Moore take this familiar "What happens in Vegas ... " idea to bold new heights — or depths, depending on your perspective — with a comedy that stays weird and wild for the first two-thirds, only to disappoint in the final act.
Structurally, though, it's based on a clever concept: Three guys take their buddy Doug (Justin Bartha) to Vegas for a bachelor party right before his wedding. When they wake up the morning after their bacchanal, they realize the groom is missing — and that's only the beginning of their trouble.
As they nurse their pounding heads and retrace their steps, they stumble down an increasingly absurd, and surprisingly dark, path. And because it all turns out to be so unpredictable, we feel like we're solving a mystery right along with them. The wordless sequence alone in which we survey the full damage of their Caesars Palace hotel suite will probably require a second viewing; there's no way to take it all in at once. (It must have been fun to be the production designer that day.)
As in Phillips' "Old School" — by far the best movie he's ever made — the casting of these motley pals goes a long way toward making such crazy situations even vaguely acceptable. Bradley Cooper ("He's Just Not That Into You") once again plays it breezy and arrogant as de facto leader Phil, a school teacher who steals from his students and hates his life (a fact that will miraculously reverse itself by the movie's end).
Ed Helms co-stars as Stu, a sweet but insecure dentist who lives under the tyrannical reign of his insulting, smothering girlfriend (Helms' fellow former "Daily Show" correspondent Rachael Harris in a grating one-note role). "The Hangover" does give Helms a chance to show some unexpected dramatic chops and singing skills, though.
And although he's there to tag along, Zach Galifianakis steals many a moment as Doug's soon-to-be brother-in-law Alan. As a loner with a sketchy past who clearly yearns to be accepted by the other guys, his performance is a fascinating balance of creepy and endearing; it's risky but it works.
But Ken Jeong, veteran of several Judd Apatow productions as well as "Role Models," is stuck here in a role that's a distasteful (and unfunny) stereotype of both Asians and gays. As a vengeful gangster, he's part of a third act that ends up being a huge letdown compared to the inspired antics that preceded it. We won't say where Doug was the whole time — we can't even say much about Doug himself, because he's barely there — but the answer is sadly mundane.
Maybe that's the point, the final gag: that the joke's on Phil, Stu and Alan and, by association, us. But that makes for one hell of a rude awakening.
"The Hangover," a Warner Bros. Pictures release, is rated R for pervasive language, sexual content including nudity and some drug material. Running time: 99 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.