The Privilege of “The Hangover”

(This article has been floating around my head for a while now, and with Todd Phillips’s Due Date recently hitting theaters and The Hangover 2 currently filming, I felt that the time was right for this overdue analysis of The Hangover.)

In one of the opening scenes of The Hangover (2009), four friends check into Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas and inquire about a villa. Alan Garner, the wayward, weird, and heavily bearded lovable loser played by comedian Zach Galifianakis, asks the receptionist “Is it awesome?” The receptionist confirms that the villa at the center of Allan’s question is, indeed, “pretty awesome.” With their rooming dilemma solved, Alan, his brother-in-law to be Doug (Justin Bartha), and Doug’s two best friends, Stu Price (Ed Helms) and Phil Wenneck (Bradley Cooper), proceed to their night’s abode, which is indeed awesome. It is a palace within Caesar’s Palace. Who wouldn’t want to exist in such comfort and carefree luxury?
These four (fairly) young men certainly do, and, in fact, even outside the confines of their nearly decadent hotel villa, they continue to live in world that never holds them accountable or fails to provide for them no matter how much damage they do or how many mistakes they make. They run around Las Vegas in the same manner that they treat their Villa; they trash it for their own pleasure and never worry about fixing the problems or cleaning up the messes that they create. Vegas and the villa serve as metaphors for the larger sphere in which these men reside, the sphere of white male privilege.

Of course, The Hangover, directed by Todd Phillips, never questions any of the political assumptions that allow these four dudes to romp and roam and then return to the domestic bliss where they are greeted by young wives/girlfriends and upper middle-class wealth. And neither of these two items is ever really threatened during their excursion. Sure, they put Doug’s fiancé through hell, but she forgives and agrees to ask no questions. The father of the bride, played by Jeffrey Tambor, who might reasonably be expected to be angry at the stunt his soon-to-be son-in-law pulled, knowingly taps Doug and the shoulder and whispers, “Vegas,” thus excusing all of the weekend’s debauchery with a “boys will be boys” attitude. He doesn’t care that his daughter has been lied to. After all, these guys were in Vegas.

Alan is able to return to the sanctuary of his family’s wealth, which will also become a sanctuary for Doug, and Phil, the group’s unnamed leader with his lean physique and perfectly coiffed five o’clock shadow who claimed that marriage and children were slowly killing him, gladly returns to the arms of his wife, a stunning blonde, and his young son. We can assume that he returns because he has had some of his life restored through gambling and watching strippers. When his life begins to ebb away again, he will probably need to return to Vegas to drink the same tonic. Stu returns from Vegas and ditches his bullying girlfriend for a compliant and pleasant stripper. One can hardly blame him since his girlfriend Melissa (Rachael Harris) is portrayed in such a horrifyingly brutish manner. All of the women in the film are either gorgeous models who let their men do exactly as they please or castrating shrews such as Melissa. No wonder these guys get away with everything. They are either enabled or encouraged by all those around them.

The ability of this gang to never pay any price rests in exactly who they are: four white guys with upper middle-class income. Had the other Doug in the film, the drug dealer referred to as “Black Doug” (Mike Epps) by Stu, been arrested for stealing a cop car, it is hard to imagine that he could have walked away without being arrested and convicted. And if the fellows’ wives and girlfriends went out for a weekend of drinking and sexual lasciviousness, it is highly doubtful they have been greeted with an unquestioning attitude by the husband’s, boyfriends, and fathers.

While the actors, Galifianakis in particular, are adept at delivering well-timed lines that elicit laughter, and the director Phillips is competent enough in creating a well paced film, there does not exist one single reason to hope that these “dudes” (the word “men” seems too respectful) succeed. Sure, we may laugh at them, but not one of them projects an ethos that would make us hope that he succeeds in overcoming his obstacles. Yet, in the end, they overcome the black drug dealers, the Asian crime lords, and the various women and domestic family structures that attempt to prohibit them from having wonderful, manly escapades.

This, of course, strikes at the central theme of The Hangover and films of its ilk. The world conspires against men (mainly white middle-class men) by forcing them to work, marry, have children, and do the things that a generation or two ago would have been the definition of “man.” Manliness is now achieved through the rejection of those more “mature” categories and the acceptance of one’s inner teenage boy. Phil, Alan, Stu, and Doug recapture their manliness by living the dream of every hormone riddled eighteen year old high school senior boy: “Let’s get wasted and watch strippers!!” After recapturing their manliness, they can go back to their stable, secure jobs, wives, families, and girlfriends, knowing that while their middle class existence may provide them the privilege and security to act like boys, it is by acting like boys that they can truly feel secure as men.

What The Hangover and so many other bro-mance/dude films unconsciously suggest is that such a ribald adventure is accessible only to a certain gender, race, and class. Indeed, those who do not look like Phil, Stu, Alan, and Doug only complicate and trouble their lives. “Black Doug” sets up the gang of four with the wrong drugs. Mr. Chow (Ken Jeong), an effeminate Asian man who runs a criminal underground operation, hounds them for money. (Apparently after fitting in a black drug dealer and an effeminate Asian man, Phillips couldn’t find room for a racially stereotyped Hispanic.) And the women might actually expect to be informed about what their guys are doing. Films such as The Hangover and other bro-mances are essentially fantasy films; they fantasize about a world in which middle class white guys can shirk their duties and responsibilities, engage in selfish adventures, and, in the end, be seen as heroic.

About Todd Hunter Starkweather

Todd Starkweather is an Assistant Professor of English at South University-Richmond. He has a PhD in English Literature from the University of Illinois-Chicago; his interests include film, Victorian studies, sport, and post-colonialism.
This entry was posted in Essays, Film, Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Privilege of “The Hangover”

  1. logrus says:

    Deeply insightful. Thank you.

    • Todd Hunter Starkweather says:

      You are welcome. Thank you for the compliment. Much appreciated.

  2. Thurston Howell, III says:

    This is a joke, right? I mean…please tell me that this whole column is just a gag. Please – confirm that for me. Also, please confirm that your interests don’t really include “post-colonialism” …that was just added to play into the theme of the joke, I assume.

    If my assumptions are incorrect, and this is in fact presented a serious work of film analysis, I can only say – wow. From what depths of white guy self-loathing have you plumbed this drivel? For God’s sake, man (sorry if I insulted you by referencing a diety) get out a have a few beers and lighten up.

    (signed) an upper-middle class white guy

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s