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|Written by Kevin Johns|
|Thursday, 16 July 2009 00:00|
The first two big-laugh moments in Todd Phillips' new comedy The Hangover come early in the film. The first is an answering machine message in which Bradley Cooper's character instructs callers to leave a message but not to text message him because "that's gay." The second arrives when Ed Helms is trying to convince his girlfriend that his friends are not as immature as she believes them to be. On cue, his friends show up in front of his house and shout, "Paging Dr. Faggot!"
The movie has barely finished its opening title sequence, and it's already gotten two big laughs . . . at the expense of gay people.
The reason a film of this sort might begin with homophobic humour is fairly obvious. The Hangover is about three men who, after a heavily intoxicated bachelor party in Las Vegas, attempt to reconstruct the events of the previous evening. There are no female characters of substance in the film; there is a fairly significant amount of male nudity; and there are several occasions in which the male characters hug and express their affection for one another verbally. The Hangover is a largely homo-social film, and this combination of elements clearly evoked homosexual anxiety on the part of its filmmakers. In order to dispel this anxiety, Phillips and his crew kickoff the film with homophobic humour in an attempt to establish and clarify the film's heterosexual leanings despite its male-heavy cast (whether or not this act is intentional or totally subconscious on the part of the filmmakers is up for debate).
Perhaps the makers of The Hangover wouldn't have had to be so concerned with homosexual anxiety if they had put some female characters of substance in the film. Instead Phillips gives us only two women, both of whom are more cardboard cut-outs than actual characters with any sort of depth. Heather Graham delivers a few lines and flashes her tits as a hooker with a heart of gold, and Rachel Harris plays a harpy-bitch girlfriend. Sasha Barrese also appears in the film, but her bride-to-be character is so one dimensional that she should really just be considered a plot point, not an actual character in any real sense.
The hooker with the heart of gold is, of course, a tried and true character trope that has been trotted out hundreds of times (and will probably never go away), and you may recognize the bitch-harpy girlfriend who won't allow her partner to have any fun with "the boys" from other recent comedies, such as Judd Appatow's Knocked Up (where he cast his own wife, Leslie Mann, to play the no-fun-bitch-wife) and Todd Phillips previous film, Old School (where Leah Remini got the honour).
One senses an air of misogyny in all these films, but it is worth noting that it is a focused misogyny, not a general one. We are meant to dislike these women for a very specific reason. Harris, Mann and Remini all play virtually the same character: the suffocating and conservative wife who tries to force her man-child husband to grow-up and act like an adult instead of an adolescent.
This is, fundamentally, the theme that a number of recent comedies have been grappling with: contemporary adult men and their difficulty coming to terms with the traditional 'man of the house' role that contemporary adult women want them to play. Whether it's the harpy wife or the sexually aggressive slut (see Ilsa Fisher in Wedding Crashers and Kathryn Hahn in Step Brothers), all of these women are depicted in a negative light because they want the men in their lives to drink responsibly, maintain a good a job, spend less time with their friends, and take care of their families. What they want, essentially, is for the male protagonists to 'man up.'
There is a social dilemma playing out in these films that has much to do with the liberal 90s clashing with the conservative 2000s. The men reaching adulthood in the last decade are a generation who grew up during a period in time in which Kurt Cobain was wearing dresses on stage, "girl power" prevailed, and political correctness reigned supreme. These men were told, in the most formative years of their lives, that the traditional masculine-family-provider-role was an out-dated archetype that no longer had a place in contemporary society, and a significant number of young men took this message to heart.
But as 90s feminism revealed itself to be little more than shallow Spice Girl corporate slogans and September 11 pushed America head-long into a decade of unbridled conservatism, a generation of men who'd never really grown up were suddenly having responsibilities thrust on them for which they were totally unprepared. Despite everything they'd been told in the 90s, it turns out women do want to men to hold the door for them and pay for dinner. They also want men to take on the same responsibilities their fathers and grandfathers had before them. In the 2000s, adult men are suddenly expected to act like men; that whole metro-sexual thing was so 90s.We thus come to the root cause of the currents of homophobia and misogyny flowing through these contemporary comedies. These films aren't really about mocking gay people or hating women, despite what their narratives and dialogue would have us believe. They are, rather, an expression of confusion. We can read these narratives as an almost desperate cry for help from a generation of men insecure in their masculinity, confused as to what the modern woman expects of them, and totally unsure of what it even means at all to be a man in the 21st century.
Whether the characters ultimately choose to settle down (Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson in Wedding Crashers) or remain man-children (Will Ferrell in Old School), one is never really left with a sense of closure regarding any of the larger societal issues at stake. Perhaps the Paul Rudd/Leslie Mann relationship in Knocked Up best represents the lack of resolution, when their relationship as man and wife concludes the film in such state of ambiguity that the storyline feels as though it has been left deliberately unresolved, as though to say: "Men, women, and their roles in society . . . to be continued!"