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By Rick Kisonak | June 9, 2009

Todd Phillips has made nine movies and he will make many more but no matter what he does for the rest of his professional life, he will forever be remembered as the director of 2003’s “Old School.” It is his “Citizen Kane,” his “Godfather,” his “Raging Bull” if “Road Trip” is “Taxi Driver.” Everything he will ever do will be measured against that film. The heartening news is that his latest withstands comparison better than anything he’s done to date.

“The Hangover” isn’t in the same league by a long shot, but it is an amiably warped romp that suggests what you might have wound up with had Hunter Thompson been hired to do the script for a Hollywood buddy film: drugs, heavy drinking, a road trip, Las Vegas – it’s even got its share of fear and loathing.

Doug (Justin Bartha) is getting married in two days. Best friends Phil (Bradley Cooper) and Stu (“The Office’s” Ed Helms) have made arrangements to drive to Sin City for a blowout bachelor party and then back to L.A. in time for the ceremony. Along for the ride is the bride’s brother, Alan (Zach Galifianakis).

Phil is a teacher who hates his job. Stu is a henpecked dentist who prefers to be called a doctor. Alan is, well, as close to a completely original screen creation as I’ve seen in years. Imagine John Belushi crossbred with Silent Bob and given to inappropriate behavior in the proximity of young children. Then add dashes of DNA from Jack Black and Seth Rogen. And, believe it or not, it’s a determinedly low-key performance that’s easily the highlight of the picture.

You’ve seen the trailer and TV ads: the four check into a luxury suite at Caesar’s Palace and wake up the next morning to find the place beyond trashed – furniture smoldering, chicken wandering through, crying baby in the closet, tiger in the bathroom, the groom mysteriously MIA; all are unable to remember a thing about the night before. With the wedding set to start in a matter of hours, the trio races against the clock to piece together what happened and locate their friend.

Much of the movie’s charm emanates from the gleeful absurdity imbuing every single piece of the puzzle the three against all odds succeed in putting together. The surprises are too inspired to risk spoiling, so let me simply list a handful of things you’re going to see along the way without compromising their narrative context:

You are going to see men tased voluntarily; a tooth pulled out on a bet; a naked Asian gangster attacking our heroes with a crowbar; a baby imitating a sex act; the groomsmen ingesting controlled substances with Carrot Top and, perhaps in an homage to Judd Apatow, Zach Galifianakis’ penis.

The script is the work of Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, who must have begun experimenting with hallucinogens or experienced serious head traumas since penning the screenplays for “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past” and “Four Christmases.” Nothing in their resumes even hints the pair might have a story this deliciously twisted in them. Which isn’t to take anything away from Phillips. His direction and pacing serve the material perfectly.

If I have a quibble, it’s that the blackouts are attributed to someone having spiked our party animals’ drinks with roofies (the date rape drug), a side effect of which is memory loss. This feels like something of a copout to me, as though to suggest the four simply drank too much would cause the audience to think less of them. Unless I’m wrong, the whole point of the movie is that they’re going to Vegas to prove to each other – and to themselves – that, while they may be closing in on middle age, they’re still wild and crazy guys.

As missteps go, though, this is a minor one and it in no way diminishes the film’s fun factor. “The Hangover” isn’t groundbreaking. It’s an intermittently flipped-out, reliably amusing affair with as much of the familiar as the freaky in the mix. Unlike a surprising number of highly touted titles already released this season, it doesn’t disappoint. It gets the job done thanks in large part to the breakout performance given by Galifianakis. It’s no “Old School,” but it will do nicely until that film’s anticipated sequel rolls around in 2011.

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