Scroll down to the bottom of this post---and it's a long way down. A long way down.---and you'll see that one categories I've filed it under is Everybody has a hungry heart. That's a clue that this isn't meant to be just another post about The Hangover. Like a lot of my posts about movies, it's as much or more about things in real life the movie got me thinking about than about the movie itself. In this case it's love, marriage, men, women, adultery, guilt, self-repression, Cheers, Shakespeare, and Cary Grant.
Commenter Dan was disappointed that I liked The Hangover.
Actually, he was disappointed that I was "so positive about this misogynistic dreck."
Dan has other objections to The Hangover, but the misogyny complaint is the one I was already prepared to deal with before Dan left his comment.
That's because one of the things I liked about The Hangover was that it wasn't misogynistic.
I've read reviews that call it misogynistic, like this one in the Daily Mail and this one in the Telegrah, but in both cases the reviewers have used the word lazily in a way that makes it almost meaningless. For both of them, the filmmakers' misogyny is proved by the fact that one of the main female characters is unlikable and the other, while likable, is something of a cliche.
If the absence of admirable and memorable female leads is misogynistic in and of itself, almost all war movies are misogynistic. If the presence of unlikable female leads is misogynistic, then Macbeth is the most misogynistic play ever written, after King Lear.
Neither review acknowledges that there is a third female lead and that, although undeveloped as a character to the point of being not much more than a stick to beat the plot along, is a strong, intelligent, adult, and likable presence.
In fact, the bride-to-be Tracy's likeableness is the key to liking the movie, which depends on our having a rooting interest in Stu and Phil's finding her lost groom Doug and getting him home in time for the wedding and thereby saving their relationship. We have to like Tracy, and Doug, and care that they get married in order to care about Stu and Phil. Otherwise they are just a couple of jerks making bigger jerks of themselves.
It's hard for me to see how a movie that is to a great degree about the happiness of a strong, intelligent, decent woman and her love for a strong, intelligent, decent man is misogynistic.
Unless you think that the character of Melissa, Stu's live-in girlfriend, is supposed to define our attitude towards all women.
Or you think that together, Melissa and Jade, the stripper and prostitute played by Heather Graham, are supposed to define it, that they represent our only two options in how to think about women, either as castrating bitches or whores.
Obviously, I don't think this is the case in The Hangover.
Melissa is a bad person. She's nasty, selfish, grasping, stifling, and an all-around pain in the neck. That's what I liked about her.
If you met a Melissa in real life, you'd call her a bitch, even if you are opposed to using that word in principle. But she's not a real person. She's a character. More to the point, she's a type. She's a shrew.
Shrew's another word there are principled objections to using to describe real people. But that doesn't mean there aren't real shrews, just as the fact that the word bitch is used to put women in general down doesn't mean there aren't in fact real bitches, some of whom aren't women. A shrew, though, is not a bitch. Bitches aren't types because they aren't characters, just attitudes. Bitches don't do anything but act bitchy. Shrews are active. They have a cause , which is the general improvement of all around them, particularly the men in their lives, and their preferred method for improving people is scolding, which they can do just as well quietly as by yelling. P.G. Wodehouse described the (relatively) quieter sort of shrew when he described Lady Florence Cray as not being able to look at a man's soul without being overcome with the desire to get behind it and push. Melissa is a shrew, not a bitch, and she doesn't represent all women as shrews, she represents only herself as a type.
In fiction, and in psychology, types are characters who are trapped inside a vicious circle of self-limiting behaviors. Another word for them in real life is neurotic.
Besides having a goal, another way a shrew is different from a bitch is that a shrew, like Katherine, can be "tamed." That is, she can break free from her neuroses, with or without help from a Petruchio. A bitch is just a mean person not worth the effort of taming. A shrew is someone who could be a nicer, better person, if she could only see her way to changing her act.
And in The Hangover the possibility is that Melissa is a nicer and better human being than we see her being on screen or at least at one point in time she was nicer and better.
Part of that possibility comes from the casting of Rachael Harris as Melissa.
Harris is playing a shrew, but she doesn't look like one. She doesn't look like anything or anybody in particular. She could be cast as a lawyer, a soccer mom, a school teacher, the loan officer at a small town bank, a nurse, a clerk in a department store---almost any thing. She is attractive, but she is not a knock-out. She is not ice queen beautiful, or movie star beautiful, or repressed schoolmarm beautiful, like Lilith on Cheers, who was not a shrew but was often put into the position of one by Fraiser and the gang's childishness and so in her own controlling, quietly bossy, treats-her-husband-like-a-dimwitted-child was a precursor to the type Harris is playing here---a smart, strong woman who to her own surprise and dismay has found herself attached to a weak and foolish and not as bright about life as he ought to be schlub of a man and rather than dumping him has decided it's her job to make the schlub shape-up. Harris is a normally pretty, as opposed to starlet pretty, pleasant-featured woman, so normal and pleasant looking that whenever she starts in on Stu it's more disconcerting than infuriating, or funny. It's hard to believe that this woman could be this cold and this mean. We start wondering if we are seeing the true Melissa. Her shrewishness might be a symptom of something, if it has cause other than her own ill-temper, and very quickly it's clear that it does have a cause and that cause is Stu.
What makes shrews shrews is the way they try to make their schlubs shape-up and what sort of person they want their schlubs to shape up into. They don't emasculate their man, they take advantage of their man's self-emasculation. They are reflections of a male character's weakness not its cause.
Stu is a cringing, fawning, needy, indecisive schlub whose one act of self-assertion is to spin an elaborate lie about where he and his buddies are about to spend their weekend. He desperately needs shaping up.
And that's a major part of what The Hangover is about, Stu's needing to shape up and how he's made to.
At first glance it might appear that all Stu needs is to escape from the shrew.
Now, if you've decided your story is the schulb's escape from the shrew into the land of happily ever aftering, a question you might want to answer is does he escape through his own efforts or is he saved by the love of another, nicer woman? If he's to be saved, how? And if your answer is that another woman saves him and she saves by loving him for what he is, you might be writing the script for a classic like Bringing Up Baby, but you are not writing the script for The Hangover.
Stu is not saved by Jade. He meets and hooks up with Jade because he is in the process of saving himself. They do not get together in the end, although the possibility that they will get together in the future is there. But it's there because Stu is a changed man.
The Hangover is more concerned with Stu's escape from his shrew than with Melissa's escape from her schlub. But there is a story to be told about a shrew being saved from a schlub by the love of a man worthier of her spirit and intelligence and strength. These aren't necessarily taming of the shrew stories. The Philadelphia Story is one of those. Gone With the Wind is, although the taming doesn't take. His Girl Friday isn't.
My point isn't that The Hangover is in the same class as those movies, only that it's easy to imagine Stu and Melissa's story told from her point of view and see that she needs to get rid of him just as urgently as he needs to escape from her.
Most comedies and all farces derive their humor mainly from the ways their characters are reduced or reduce themselves to types. The "drama" is in how the characters we are meant to care about break free of their type. I don't like farces in which the characters break so far free of their types at the end that they become realistic human beings. But I do like to be able to see the real human beings that are behind the types, and I think I can see that in The Hangover's subplot about Melissa and Stu.
We are told very little about them or their history together. We know they've been a couple for several years, but we don't know how they met or what attracted them to each other. We can guess that neither one was the person we see on screen when they got together because its unlikely that Stu would have fallen for anyone this nasty and bossy or that Melissa would have gone for anyone this craven and unctuous and, well, repulsively needy.
We are told one significant fact about their past. She has cheated on him.
As far as we know, it was just once, and we don't know the precise circumstances exactly, although it's implied that she was drunk at the time and it was on a cruise ship and with a stranger and Stu saw it happen. We don't know if it was just a mistake or something more. We can guess, though, that it changed their relationship for the worse, because it changed them.
Clearly, it terrified Stu to the point that he doesn't dare assert himself with her because that would risk her either breaking it off with him or, worse, telling him why she cheated, that why being that he is not sexually or otherwise enough of a man for her, an irony, since what's he's doing is making himself less and less of a man and she plainly despises that in him even as she takes advantage of it.
How it changed her is less clear, but it likely made her afraid too. Afraid of losing Stu and afraid of herself.
What does it say about her, a strong-willed, decent, well-behaved adult, that while on vacation with the man she supposedly loves she could get drunk and rip one off with a stranger in public?
What it appears to have said to her is that if she could goof up like that then the odds were good that Stu would eventually goof up too. She's projecting all over the place, of course. But she's determined that Stu won't get the chance to do to her what she did to him. She bullies him and spies on him and takes control of every aspect of his life she can get her hands on.
The trouble for Melissa is that she's decided that in order to keep Stu in line she has to keep right on top of him, which leaves her with no breathing room of her own. The cage she's built around him, she's also built around herself. In trying to deny that the side of herself that allowed her to go wild on that cruise isn't there, she's repressed every urge to have fun, any sort of fun, including sex.
None of this is there explicitly on the screen, but none of it is precluded by anything on the screen.
And if The Hangover's treatment of Melissa was misogynistic it would have been precluded. We wouldn't have been allowed to see past not the type but the stereotype to a real human being worth our understanding if not our admiration.
Nasty as she is to Stu, she is also being nasty to herself, and that makes her a sad and pathetic character---or it would make a real life version of her sad and pathetic. It also makes her a particular character. Melissa isn't representative of all women, or most women, or many women. She is representative of herself or at least the self she would have if she was an actual person.
A lot of the stupid attitudes towards women and sex in movies is due less to hatred for women than to fear of them and not even to fear of women themselves but to men's fear of not being worthy of them. Oh, ok, to men's fear of not being able to get it up. Men's fear of sexual inadequacy is an ancient theme of farce. As Yoda says, fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, and so gynophobia can turn into misogyny when men blame their own flaccidity on the women in their lives. But while Stu is afraid of upsetting Melissa and thereby losing her, the movie's attitude towards women in general is neither fear nor anger. Love, marriage, commitment, and intimacy between a man and a woman are portrayed as good things.
None of those qualities are present in the relationship between Melissa and Stu. In fact, their relationship is based on anger and fear---in her case the anger is overt and the fear is repressed, and with him it's the other way around.
To repeat myself: Most comedies and all farces derive their humor mainly from the ways their characters are reduced or reduce themselves to types. The "drama" is in how the characters we are meant to care about break free of their type. A lot of comedies fail when instead of their characters breaking free of type they simply turn into another type or into cliches and then demand we love them for it.
I think that both Stu and Phil break free and become, if not more like real people, at least much less their original type and more like rounded characters. That we don't see Melissa breaking free of her type and are not meant to care one way or the other is just a fact of the movie being about Stu and Phil and not about her. That she's a woman has nothing to do with that or with the fact that our dislike or her is left unchallenged at the end. It's just not her movie.
Something else. Melissa is not the movie's villain. The movie's bad guy, to the extent that it has a bad guy, is Phil.
Phil is a selfish and careless jerk. He doesn't like being married, but that isn't because he doesn't like his wife. The cause and effect work the other way. It's not that he dislikes his wife so he dislikes being married to her. He dislikes being married so he dislikes her, as his excuse. And he doesn't like being married for the same reason he doesn't like being a teacher. Both things require him to be responsible to and for other people.
And if a shrew is a strong woman stuck with a man who is not a worthy match for her, and if the filmmakers meant us to see all women, or most women, as shrews, then Phil's wife ought to be a shrew too. But she's not. She is warm, good humored, affectionate, and quite happily surprised by the change in him which she recognizes instantly and apparently not because he's come back from Vegas a different person but because he's come back as his old self. Her single line, which Gretchen Egolf delivers with a charming mix of surprise, relief, and love, "Is this my husband?" is rhetorical. It's her way of saying she is glad to have him back, not just from Vegas, but from whatever dark place inside himself he's been hanging out in lately. In short, Phil's problem is not women, or this woman. This woman is a positive good in his life. Phil's problem is a man. Phil.
So, the reason I didn't think The Hangover harshes on women is that I didn't think it was about women's bad behavior at all. This is a movie that begins with Phil tearfully confessing to Tracy on the phone, "We fucked up!" It's about the bad behavior of two men. It's about Stu's weakness and Phil's selfishness, and to the extent that women have anything to do with their bad behavior it's mainly that they suffer because of it. Even Melissa. Stu makes a fool of her with his complicated lies throughout the movie. We're not expected to think she deserves to be lied to. We're expected to think Stu's a creep and a coward for lying to her. What she deserves is to be stood up to.
Seems to me that for a movie to be misogynistic women as women have to be presented as the problem.
Now...please don't ask me to explain Mr Chow.