RATING |

I'm going to say, at the risk of doing time in the blurbitentiary, that "The Hangover" is the "Citizen Kane" of bachelor party movies.

No, it won't be studied in film schools 50 years hence, but if Orson Welles drank a gallon of Paul Masson and made a "What Happens in Vegas" comedy, he might come up with something like this clever pastiche of mystery and narrative reconstruction.

"The Hangover" is more Buddy Movie than Rosebud, for sure, but it's smarter than its TV commercials make it look. For one thing, it has come to bury The Bender, not to praise it. Or even show it.

In "The Hangover," what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas because nobody can remember what happened in Vegas. A few days before a wedding, four guys go out to party on the strip. Three wake up the next day in their hotel suite, without a memory of the previous night.

One's missing a tooth.

Another's wearing a hospital bracelet.

There's a tiger in the bathroom.

The groom, however, is gone.

At a groggy breakfast, the three survivors realize their memory of the previous evening stops at 2 a.m., leaving half a day unaccounted for, along with their missing friend.

They start at the hospital, their last known place of (relative) sobriety, and from there piece together the sorry events of the night before - missing ingredients include angry police, vengeful Asian gangsters, Mike Tyson, booze, drugs, strippers and wedding chapels.

Their investigation yields its share of lowbrow, slapstick yuks, but director Todd Phillips ("Old School") forges something more substantial with shrewd casting. "The Hangover," like all buddy movies, depends on chemistry, and Phillips creates an interesting, fruitful mix.

Bradley Cooper is the handsome hotshot, Ed Helms the Walter Mitty nerd on a short leash, and newcomer Zach Galifianakis is the wild card - a fifth wheel who tags along because he's the bride's friendless brother.

Galifianakis is an offbeat stand-up, and "The Hangover" uses his weird energy - what the Unibomber might have been like as a comic - effectively. The way the other men tolerate and ultimately embrace his weirdness is a happy surprise - they certainly have more compassion for Galifianakis than the movie has for them.

"The Hangover" does not wink and nod at their debauchery. In fact, in an almost Puritanical way, it seems eager to punish them for enjoying themselves, or for leaving a man behind. As they recover their memory (if not their morals), they're beaten, Tasered, humiliated and otherwise Guantanamo'ed.

That's an eternity of pain for a few hours of pleasure, but, as Charles Foster Kane could tell you, that's life.