There may be no better test case for what 2019 audiences have deemed acceptable in American comedy than “The Hangover.”
The film hit theaters on June 5, 2009, and was both well-received by critics and earned more than $277 million at the U.S. box office. It made immediate superstars out of Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms and Zach Galifianakis while becoming possibly the most quotable movie of the late 2000s. “Not at the table, Carlos” will never not be hysterical.
Of course, there are certain jokes in “The Hangover” that simply would not fly in 2019. From Phil’s answering machine message being, “Don’t text me, it’s gay,” to Black Doug (woof) calling the wolf-pack crew “f—ing retarded” to literally everything Ken Jeong does, the film now serves as an interesting time capsule of what kind of comedy was celebrated in the late 2000s.
Since “The Hangover” is still hilarious yet unquestionably problematic, how can we reconcile those two elements of its legacy going forward? And what does the fact that this conversation feels necessary say about how we view older art, even something that was released only a decade ago?
This is an important discussion given the prevalence of “cancel culture,” which is the notion that any art containing offensive content should be immediately declared unwatchable. Angry mobs coming after older pieces of entertainment usually are comprised of mostly younger folks finding these shows and movies for the first time.
For the record, there is nothing wrong with reckoning with how something plays given our modern sensibilities. We should definitely acknowledge that not every “Friends” joke holds up to contemporary standards, Tom Hanks was essentially catfishing Meg Ryan in “You’ve Got Mail” and that the portrayal of Long Duk Dong in “Sixteen Castles” is unambiguously racist.
But that’s not to say the answer is just to pretend these shows and films don’t exist anymore. All of the above examples are classics that can’t be erased from history just because a few millennials found them problematic once they dropped on Netflix. The same goes with “The Hangover,” which is too good to be dismissed as a remnant of a less politically correct era.
I was 17 when I first saw “The Hangover,” and it was genuinely the funniest thing I had ever seen at the time. I saw it three times in theaters to ensure I had an excuse to laugh at Mike Tyson punching Alan in the face again.
Look, I’ll say it: “The Hangover” still slaps. It’s an incredibly funny film anchored by three career-making performances that also offered some shockingly insightful commentary on male bonding. Some of the humor has and will continue to stand the test of time, like The Dan Band playing a slow version of “Candy Shop” at the wedding.
That stuff doesn’t become less side-splittingly hilarious because of all the Asian stereotypes Jeong embodies as Mr. Chow, or the time Phil announces his arrival at Stu’s house using a homophobic slur. There’s plenty of smart humor mixed into the lazier material, which makes “The Hangover” worthy of both praise and light condemnation.
There are also plenty of jokes that could be offensive but are also objectively amazing comedy. Alan saying “I didn’t know they gave out rings at the Holocaust” is wrong on so many levels, but it’s arguably the film’s most iconic line because of how sincerely he asks the question. As a Jew who can only speak for myself, I’m still here for it.
Again, we should critically examine movies like “The Hangover” and call them out for the things that don’t work anymore. But labeling films like this as problematic and deciding it’s never worth interacting with them again is shortsighted and doesn’t do justice both to what they got right and to what we can learn from them going forward.
Then again, if you want to deprive yourself of watching early-career Bradley Cooper getting tasered in the nuts by a child, that’s your prerogative. It’s also your loss.
How do you feel about “The Hangover” 10 years later? Let us know in the comments or social media!
Featured image credit: Warner Bros.
Joshua Axelrod has spent five years working in and around journalism for websites and publications like the Military Times, Washington Examiner FanSided. He graduated from the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism in 2014 and George Washington University’s media and strategic master’s program in 2018. He is about to begin a new phase of his career as a digital sports producer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.