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The Hangover (2009) -vs- My Life In Ruins (2009)

Sherry CobenThe Smackdown

It’s a battle of the sexes for the ages. The balls-out edgy Men-Will-Be-Boys comedy takes on the watching-paint-dry-by-numbers My Not So Fat Any More Greek Tour Guide. Hardly a fair fight, there’s no intersection in the Venn diagram of viewers who might enjoy both outings. One’s ostensibly for the ladies — and by ladies I mean strictly Red Hat Society folks, the ones who talk in the theaters non-stop, moviegoers surprised by plot turns telegraphed so clearly that you wonder how these clueless souls found their way to the theater without assistance. The Hangover aims for a demographic blessed with a lowbrow sense of humor and no sense of decorum. It’s Dumb versus Dumber. Chicks versus Dudes. Old versus Young. Grab yourself a Jaegermeister or a giant bottle of Ouzo. You’re gonna need to get a little liquored up to make it through this double feature.

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In This Corner

Imagine Mamma Mia without ABBA. Nia Vardalos plays a second-rate tour guide in Greece, surrounded by a bunch of hopelessly corny tourists and stereotypical locals. If touring Greece by bus is something you might consider actually doing at some point in your life, you might enjoy watching My Life In Ruins. I’ll just sit over there in the corner, doing just about anything else in the world if you don’t mind. But, as they say, those who like this sort of thing will likely like it. (Send your parents.)

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In That Corner

Four men head to Vegas for a bachelor party. Happens all the time. Everyone knows the story. Everyone’s seen the movie. Hell, that’s why men head to Vegas for a bachelor party. They’re hoping to get in a little last call X-rated action before the end of life as they know it. While the standard chickflick ends happily at the altar, guy-style bromance usually goes on a little road trip in the opposite direction. The bachelor party of The Hangover gets a whole lot more bang for their bucks than they ever imagined. And so, happily, do we.

The Scorecard

Ladies First. Glacially paced with jokes you can see coming from another theater in another multiplex (or galaxy) miles (or light years) away, the matinee audience of (mostly elderly) ladies laughed their way through as I clawed my seat and imagined scooping my own eyes out with a grapefruit spoon. This ham-handed steaming pile of fossilized sentiment managed to insult Greeks, Americans, gays, Brits, Australians, Canadians, and even Angelina Jolie.

Nia Vardalos went ubiquitous, twittering and talk-showing, sounding the feminista alarm, and aligning her ducks, promising that Hollywood will forsake women’s movies if women didn’t show up opening day for her little bundle of filmic fun. I subscribe to that theory, knowing that studio heads consider female-driven, powerhouse-box-office winners Mamma Mia! and Sex and the City flukes, and so I dutifully showed up to the first show as I nearly always do. Putting my money where my mouth is. I’m starting to question myself. So many films targeted at women just plain suck.

I suspect that the others heeding Vardalos’ clarion call were diehard fans of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, an over-praised indie film of inflated repute and too-obvious charms. Vardalos has made a big honking deal about her dramatic weight loss since that film; My Life In Ruins characters mention her thinness and her beauty more times than one might expect on the planet earth. She is an average-looking woman, but the character she plays is so bereft of charm and magnetism as to render those around her so apparently intoxicated with her as borderline tetched. She’s a terrible tour guide who’s lost her Kefi (Greek for Mojo), and the film provides a How Georgia Got Her Groove Back-style pile of hair who morphs into what passes in Greece for a hot guy. They fall into bed, then love, following a series of tepid adventures on a craptastic tour bus filled with ethnic stereotypes and cardboard cutouts meant to, I’d guess, dissuade all but the most masochistic from ever venturing aboard a tour bus or possibly abroad at all.

I think most bus tourists would be hard-pressed to name their tour guide with a loaded gun held to their temples and a thousand dollar bill waved in front of their faces, but in this world, not only do the tourists know the names of everyone on the bus, they care deeply about the welfare and love lives of every passenger and their leader most of all. Why, you ask? Because the script says so, that’s why. There’s magic afoot, and the biggest trick of all is how the hell this drek got financed.

Don’t go. Your life will be ruined.

What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, and I say it’s all just as well. There are only so many variations on the story, and I don’t particularly want to listen to most of them. Ever. Post-adolescent bouts of drunken gambling and wanton drug use, illicit sex, and alcohol poisoning lose their power to shock and entertain. But The Hangover’s wised-up bunch of doofuses gets in the kind of wacky trouble I don’t mind hearing about, because the storytelling is fresh and the characters well drawn and individuated. Portrayed by talented and well cast actors, they keep revealing themselves in deft and shocking ways, scattering punchlines and character beats and enough surprises to keep even this jaded moviegoer laughing throughout. Messing with narrative conventions to excellent effect, the story gets told intriguingly, and the mystery unfolds satisfyingly and fully over the end credits and not before.

Ed Helms scores big as an uptight dentist on the tightly leashed loose, and Bradley Cooper messes with his usual oily cad persona, adding a wife and child to the mix, but comedian Zach Galifianakis is the comic revelation. In a fearless performance, ZG reveals the consistently hilarious (if deeply troubled) heart and soul (and belly and ass and package) of the character perhaps most changed by this ill-fated road trip. Male bonding at its finest and most extreme.

Rachael Harris steps scarily into the patented Catherine Keener bitch role, earning stunned gasps from the audience with her cold turn as the worst girlfriend ever. Rollergirl Heather Graham plays it skanky and sweet, the hooker/stripper with the heart of gold, as always. The extraordinary violence takes on an almost Roadrunner cartoon quality; it hurts so much you can’t help but laugh, and our hapless knights of the blackjack table proceed, bloodied and bruised, bouncing back in pursuit of their groom/grail.

For those of you living under a rock who’ve somehow missed all the comedy-crushing trailers and clips, I will spare you any spoilers. Suffice it to say, some cameos and plot twists are well worth keeping under wraps. The less you know going in, the better. Always a good rule of thumb where funny is concerned. Screenwriters Jon Lucas and Scott Moore pulled this pants-down, full-monty-baring rabbit out of their hats, and I could scarcely believe it. Their last at-bat was the excruciatingly bad Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, and before that, the formulaic success Four Christmases. These guys might be hacks, but it seems that at least they’re talented, funny hacks, capable of strip-mining too-familiar territory for comedy gold from time to time, batting somewhere around .300, a more than respectable average.

The Decision

You know that aunt who asks you questions in the sort of slow motion that makes you wonder whether she knows you’re dealing with a full deck? And. What. Grade. Are. You. In. Now? After a few minutes of conversation, you start doubting yourself and the whole world feels slightly underwater and off-kilter. Well, that’s what  watching My Life In Ruins feels like. A well meaning aunt talking way too slow, stating the obvious, smiling and staring into your eyes. She offends every group she mentions, but she’d be shocked if you ever pointed out that undeniable fact. She means well. Still, if you’re blissfully unaware of movie conventions, if your supermarket basket routinely contains more than the standard issue of products prominently featuring the word fiber, if you remember the sixties, if you didn’t start taking a lot of drugs until your sixties, this movie might just be for you. I can not imagine why; I recommend it to you based solely on my observation in the theater of an entire segment of the audience rocking with laughter and smiling broadly as they left the theater. I smiled broadly as I left the theater, too, but for entirely different reasons. My smile would have been a whole lot broader had I left ninety minutes earlier.

So. The winner… critically and at the box office. It’s a no-brainer.  The Hangover. Done deal. Laugh out loud funny. Well told. Unpretentious. Clever. Affectionate towards its characters. Unexpectedly sweet under all the tastelessness.

About Sherry Coben 77 Articles
A comedy writer who created the 1980s hit show Kate & Allie, Sherry Coben — tired of malingering in development hell — has enjoyed coaching a high school ComedySportz team in SoCal, making a no-budget, high-ambition webisode series, and biting the hand that feeds her.

7 Comments on The Hangover (2009) -vs- My Life In Ruins (2009)

  1. Talk about an unfair fight…don’t you know that boys aren’t supposed to hit girls? The Hangover is just another Apatow ripoff, but it’s a good one. It lacks the heart of Apatow originals like Knocked Up and Superbad, but is about 50x better than ripoffs like Zack and Miri. Some career advice for Vardalos: Find a nice little role in an ensemble sitcom and try to ride that for a few years. I don’t think I can bear another big fat (or thin) Greek anything from her.

  2. Charlotte… I think the short answer is “yes.” It’s definitely sad.

  3. I’m glad I read this… I wasn’t even considering going to see “The Hangover,” but after reading this review I went, and I was pleasantly surprised. Is it sad that it’s the best movie I’ve seen in theaters in the last two months?

  4. Bad behavior not limited to Americans, either. We were seeing the play, “Billy Elliot,” in London last year and the woman (late twenties) continued to text during the entire first half and, each time, illuminating the aisle like an usher with a flashlight. I was right behind her and I think she felt the hot glare of my indignation because she and her three friends all left at the intermission… to text in peace, I assume.

  5. Another movie etiquette surprise was watching people texting during a film. Egads.

  6. I would never ever dare imply that all older women (or any group) fit in any category. Ever. You’re absolutely right; rudeness defies all rules. Still, you know exactly who I mean. I distinctly recall two biddies watching “Billy Elliott” right behind me, running commentary unceasing. My favorite completely unnecessary observation of theirs, and I quote verbatim: “Toast. Look. He’s making toast.” Another similarly addled pair made my matinee day decades ago in NYC, remarking each time a transitional montage came onscreen during Alan Alda’s “Four Seasons” (1981): “Oh, Mildred, look at the foliage!”

  7. My Life in Ruins? Had no intention of wasting my money or time on it. My only quibble with your assessment this time is that not ALL older women are the mindless, yap-in-the-theater bitches you describe. I’ve rapped a few of those on the head and told them to take it outside. Unfortunately, rudeness and a short attention span are qualities shared by old and young alike – probably fanned by the habit of sitting in their own homes and talking away during a film.
    Love your insights and skill in describing a film without giving it all away. Keep writing. We’ll keep reading (and watching).

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