Did you know that The Hangover - now a ten-year-old raunchy classic - is in fact a very Freudian story about the repression of the modern man? Today we apply psychoanalysis to the Todd Phillips film and find out if the demons of Phil (Bradley Cooper), Stu (Ed Helms) and Alan (Zach Galifianakis) will ever go away.
Psychoanalyzing The Hangover: Repression and the Modern Man
The Hangover -- a simple comedy about a Vegas bachelor party gone awry, or a dark Freudian parable exposing the anguish of the modern man?
There’s an interesting subtext to Todd Phillips’ movie, which turns 10 this year. The characters’ blackout is a metaphor for repression. As Phil, Stu, and Alan retrace their steps to piece together what happened the night before, they confront buried selves that shock them. And in the sequels, these guys can’t help repeating this pattern. Something dark and wild periodically resurfaces within them, however badly they want to escape it.
Phil: "It happened again."
Tracy: "Seriously what is wrong with you three?" –in The Hangover Part II
So there’s a fascinating cultural commentary hidden in these comedies. These men represent a discontentment haunting the contemporary American male which may, in fact, be impossible to cure.
So here’s our take on what The Hangover reveals about repression in today’s society and why the Wolfpack’s inner demons will never go away.
The Hangover According to Freud
When The Hangover starts, the three main characters are dissatisfied in their day-to-day lives.
Unable to face the scope of their unhappiness, these guys unknowingly resort to the defense mechanism of repression, banishing distressing thoughts and impulses to the unconscious mind, where we stop being aware of them at all. It’s only when they get together for Doug’s bachelor party in Vegas -- the US’s symbolic epicenter of pleasure-seeking -- that they allow the release of their long bottled-up ids.
Mike Tyson: "Who does shit like that man?"
Phil: "Someone who has a lot of issues obviously. I’m a sick man." –in The Hangover
In Freudian psychoanalysis, the id is the instinctual, pleasure-seeking self -- our most basic drives, often expressed through sex and violence. Crucially, the id is unconscious. As Freud wrote, “It is the dark, inaccessible part of our personality.” So this is why the Wolfpack’s deep instincts only come out when they’re drugged and their usual, self-controlling mechanisms are disabled. All of the movies feature wild animals that show up as a result their debauchery which represent the primal, animal selves they've unleashed. It’s fitting that there are three guys at the center of these movies because, broadly speaking, they align with Freud’s concepts of the Superego, the Ego, and the Id. Stu corresponds to the superego, the psyche’s internalized moral standards and ideals, which come from our parents and our society. If the id is “I want,” the superego is “I should.”
“I was happy and my life was good. Getting married like a dentist should.” –Stu in The Hangover Part II
Stu’s obsession with the person he “should” be is encapsulated in the way he believes it’s not good enough to be a dentist and aspires to be a higher-status doctor. He’s determined to marry Melissa, even though he doesn’t like her because he thinks she’s a suitable partner and the length of their courtship necessitates a proposal.
This relationship forces him to lie all the time. But he doesn’t see this as a problem, because he’s so used to lying to himself. Stu’s long-term denial and his overdeveloped superego lead him to display almost a split personality. He’s a nerdy, thoroughly vanilla guy in his conscious life, but under the influence of drugs and alcohol, a whole other person surfaces.
His blackout lets him bond with a woman who actually makes him happy. But in the light of day, he declares her socially unacceptable. When Stu starts to learn about his other self, he tries to suppress it back down into oblivion. At the end of the first movie, he takes a big step forward when he releases the anger he didn’t know was there and admits to himself that he’s not okay with Melissa’s infidelity.
Yet in The Hangover Part II we see that he’s reverted to his old repressive techniques. When the Wolfpack has another blackout, yet again Stu is the one who goes the wildest. And this is no coincidence -- because Stu is the most repressed of the Wolfpack, his dangerously pent-up id is the most potent and in need of release.
In all three blackouts only Stu goes so far as to alter his body in ways that can only be reversed through surgery. It’s as if the wild id within him is trying to leave a permanent mark that it was there. In the first movie, his willingness to pull out his own tooth is an example of displacement, or redirecting an aggressive impulse onto a new target. His real motivation is to prove his worth as a doctor
“Alan bet you that you weren't a good enough dentist to pull out your own tooth.” –Jade in The Hangover
But this comes out as an act of self-harm, which gets at the way that his obsession with living up to this doctor-ideal is hurting him. In Part II, he has sex with a trans prostitute, despite having no inkling of this desire in his conscious life. And this behavior so shocks him that Stu is finally motivated to accept his repressed self. He realizes that his inner darkness has to be integrated into his life -- and he even seems empowered by it.
“I wish I was a boring dentist who had a boring life and boring friends... but I don't, I'm not.” –Stu in The Hangover Part II
Even so, Stu doesn’t tell the woman he’s marrying about his experience with the prostitute. So he’s still lying about his latent urges because he feels the truth would threaten his traditional, heterosexual marriage. In the credits of the third movie, when he wakes up with breasts, it appears Stu has a buried desire to experiment with his gender as well. But given his pattern, he’ll likely repress this and continue to shock himself with more and more extreme behavior during blackouts.
The other irony of Stu’s story is that the wife he rejected from their original night in Vegas goes on to marry a surgeon who was evidently secure enough to see past the stigma of her profession, and appreciate the kind, accepting person she is. Because Stu is so uncomfortable with himself, he missed the opportunity to be with someone who made him feel completely un-self-conscious and uninhibited.
Alan is most closely aligned with the id. He is pure instinct, with no filter or self-consciousness. The id, which is Latin for “it”, is a chaotic mess of impulses without an organizing self or narrative. And likewise, Alan has never felt the need to “grow up” and become a respectable, bread-winning member of society.
“I’m a stay-at-home son.” –Alan in The Hangover Part II
And when we peer into Alan’s mind in Part II, he even sees himself and his friends as children. The other guys are wary of Alan’s uninhibited eccentricity, but deep down they’re drawn to him. And this represents the way the movie is celebrating a juvenile silliness. Alan’s capacity for childlike, brotherly fun is what the other guys are missing in their too-adult lives.
It’s significant that in the first two movies, Alan is the one responsible for drugging the others.
Alan: "I was told it was ecstasy."
Stu: "Why would you give us ecstasy?"
Alan: "I wanted everyone to have a good time and I knew you guys wouldn’t take it." –in The Hangover
What we’re seeing is the id overtaking the restrictive parts of their psychology to let them have fun, for once.
By the third Hangover film, though, even Alan starts to progress beyond being just id. The movies eventually shape Leslie Chow into the symbol of pure id. If Alan was a fun, playful representation of impulsiveness, Chow, the selfish, reckless criminal, is framed as the dark mirror of what it means to live a life that’s purely about chasing pleasure and avoiding pain.
Phil would be the ego of the story. The ego, which is Latin for “I,” is the organized concept of self, which follows the “reality principle” meaning it bases its actions on the reality of the external world rather than just doing whatever it feels like, as the Id does by following the “pleasure principle.” Freud described the ego as, quote, “like a man on horseback, who has to hold in check the superior strength of the horse.” And this explains Phil’s special connection with Alan. He clearly likes Alan and enjoys his free spirit, but Phil himself is careful not to sever his connection to reality and normality.
The ego finds socially acceptable ways to satisfy the id without causing long-term destruction. And this is why Phil considers the ritual of the bachelor party so sacred.
Stu: "This is the bachelor party."
Phil: "That’s bullshit. You can’t just skip out of a bachelor party, Stu." –in The Hangover Part II
It’s a socially sanctioned opportunity to let loose. Unlike the others, Phil is notably unscathed by their dark adventures. As the ego, he maintains a balance in his life between the extremes of Alan’s wild fun and Stu’s buttoned-up control -- and he does this by periodically releasing his bottled-up impulses and then forgetting about whatever he did as he returns to his stable adult life.
While the Id and the Superego are generally at odds with each other, it’s the ego’s job to negotiate the relationship between the two. Phil gets along best with both Alan and Stu and understands how to control them.
The ego moderates the conception of the self, and in Phil we see a person who’s having to update his story of himself to more accurately reflect his phase of life. In the first movie, Phil mourns the loss of his young, carefree self now that he’s a responsible husband, father and schoolteacher. Phil is a kind of inverse of Stu, who’s pretending to be happy. Phil pays a lot of lip service to his unhappiness while he puts on a front of being the cavalier “cool guy” as it’s important to him to live up to his self-image of being young, fun, reckless. But in actuality, he seems pretty content with his life. In scenes like this one:
Phil: "Let's go hook up with Doug. We'll deal with the baby later."
Stu: "Phil, we're not gonna leave a baby in the room. There's a fucking tiger in the bathroom." –in The Hangover
Phil’s lack of concern for the baby is bizarre, considering he’s the only one who’s a father. This isn’t authentic behavior. As their adventure gets more and more out of hand, Phil has to admit that he’s not willing to blow up the life he secretly likes.
A Crisis of Masculinity
The trilogy is full of nods to Westerns like these early still shots of the desert that might remind us of the start of No Country for Old Men. And when the guys wake up with their hangover in Part II, we hear the Western-style song, “The Beast in Me.” The Western undertones hint at a nostalgia for an era when machismo was more celebrated and allowed free reign.
“Four of us wolves running around the desert together in Las Vegas looking for strippers and cocaine.” –Alan in The Hangover
In its broad strokes, The Hangover might remind us of Fight Club, David Fincher’s film about -- spoiler alert -- a man who’s so repressed that he creates a free-spirited alter-ego, Tyler Durden, to let out the aggressive impulses he won’t let himself act on. Alan is The Hangover’s Tyler. He may not look exactly like Brad Pitt but he represents living without inhibition, and he drugs the guys to free them up. And like Fight Club, The Hangover speaks to a crisis of masculinity in our society.
In both movies, the male characters lead double lives because their society doesn't let them express their primal instincts for aggression and for intense bonding with other men.
Funnily enough, The Hangover is also a kind of 2000s update to the 80s Three Men and a Baby, as Alan himself acknowledges in a subtle shout-out,
“It’s got Ted Danson, Magnum PI and that Jewish actor.” –Alan in The Hangover
Both feature a goofy set-up of three guys finding a mysterious baby, while their underlying story is about men grieving the loss of their carefree bachelor life as they age into a phase of adult responsibility. Another striking resemblance between these films is that they spend an unnecessary amount of time on thriller and crime plots that go nowhere.
The movie also has some aspects of Superbad, where the teens’ plan to party hard is really driven by their sadness about losing each other. The guys’ search for Doug symbolizes their repressed fear of losing him as he prepares to get married and start a new chapter.
Moreover, these issues aren’t uniquely male. Bridesmaids follows a woman in a similar transitional period acting out and denying that anything is wrong because it’s hard for her to lose her best friend to marriage. So there’s a universality to the grief that human beings feel as they move beyond that time of life when friendships are center stage and say goodbye to their young, responsibility-free selves.
Alan: "Now that I’m getting married I’m going to be spending a lot more time with Cassandra."
Phil: "Of course, that’s the way it should be."
Alan: "The point is you need to let me go." –in The Hangover Part III
The Culture of Blacking Out
At first glance, The Hangover may appear to be a celebration of partying. But as the movies get darker, they reveal a perversity in American binge-drinking culture. After all, what does it say that the hallmark of a great night out is not being able to remember it?
Phil believes forgetting works, and he reflects a society that implicitly encourages these kinds of releases in the dark, so that its citizens will continue with a status quo that doesn’t actually satisfy them.
Compensating for a lackluster reality with big nights out to “get it out of their system” pacifies these dissatisfied men, so they’re not motivated to change their lives. But if, as a collective, we feel the urge to numb ourselves in the name of fun, eventually we have to ask, what’s so oppressive about our daily lives that we’re running away from?
Unlike most narratives which fix their characters’ issues by the end, The Hangover franchise doesn’t really show these guys making any progress. Each movie wraps up with lessons seemingly learned, only to undo all that. The guys never overcome this cycle -- What we’re seeing here is repetition compulsion, where the unconscious mind makes us repeat destructive
or traumatic behavior. This is also at the center of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, in which Scottie is haunted by a debilitating fear until he returns to the scene of the crime and confronts it. That film’s near-happy ending is a bait-and-switch, as Scottie ends up reliving his traumatic experience and will now be even more damaged than before. Likewise, in Hangover Part III, the guys return to the scene of their original crime -- Vegas. They capture the trilogy’s dark “id” figure, Chow. Yet this dark id cannot be escaped.
In The Hangover Part II, Phil says,
“We weren’t ourselves last night.” – Phil in The Hangover Part II
But in fact, these unconscious selves contain a real and important part of them. So one moral of this story is in vino veritas. Our best bet is to strive for a waking life that gratifies our truest urges. The Wolfpack’s fourth member, Doug, shows that this is a possibility, at least if your desires are considered “normal” by society. He appears fulfilled by his loving relationship with Tracy, and his well-adjusted nature is why he doesn’t have that much to do in these movies.
If The Hangover contains any advice it’s that -- just as our greatest dangers come from within us --the answers to our problems are buried within us, too. To solve their mysteries, all the guys have to do is remember. We may not be willing to face what we really know deep down, but if we don’t, sooner or later that buried truth is coming back to bite us.