A poster for the French release of 2009’s The Hangover. Photo by Peter Martorano.
The notion of a “national identity” is a tricky concept to articulate. A very simple question, “What does it mean to be American?” can yield a complicated tangle of answers, and will never lead to one absolute conclusion. Yet aspects of different responses can be agreed upon as fractions of the greater identity pie. Well, I want to put it to you that one of those slices of good ole’ American apple is their ability to sell the college party (apologies for the unexpected possessive adjective, I’m a Canuck). As respected as it may be for a cultural institution, the image of American campus life is not libraries and lecture-halls, but rather keg parties and frat rituals. American colleges are known for their legendary party-atmosphere—a place where one goes to exercise their right of ultimate freedom; the journey into adulthood escorted by alcohol and sex.
This atmosphere has been fueled by Hollywood. So much so in fact, that I can’t help but wonder what American university life would be like if it wasn’t for some of the iconic party movies that have found their way to screens over the last four decades. American Graffiti (1973), Animal House (1978), Dazed and Confused (1993), Old School (2003), The Hangover (2009) and A Good Old Fashioned Orgy (2011) are all examples of Hollywood’s successful attempt to sell the all-American party. And through the progression of these cult classics, there exists an underlying thread that magnifies another American pop culture story: the fight against age. When written out back-to-back-to-back, we can spot the evolution from high school to thirty-something as if the party hasn’t stopped, it’s just grown old (which is a big difference from growing “up”).
I am not old enough to tell you about the spirit felt around the release of American Graffiti. The coming-of-age story centers on Curt Henderson’s (Richard Dreyfuss) conflict about leaving home for college. Uncertain as to whether or not life away from his high school pals is what he wants, he turns to a wild goose chase over a pretty blond he saw on Friday night. I would argue that what helped place this film on the map was its soundtrack. The entire night is back-dropped to Wolfman Jack’s now-famous American Graffiti soundtrack, and the idea of the ‘one-night party movie’ was made.
Three decades later and kids of the nineties would get their own coming-of-age melodrama hit. The Graffiti formula proved a success once, so why not try it again? Dazed and Confused has gone on to become one of the most recognized high school party films of its day, again propelled by its soundtrack (ironically though, the Led Zeppelin version of the song of the same title was not permitted to appear on the soundtrack by lead singer Robert Plant). Dazed and Confused, as fun as it was, was nothing extraordinary in terms of party antics. Arguably, part of the film’s great success was its relativity—just about anyone in America could relate to that feeling of entering high school, being a senior in high school, or just trying to fit in with the cool kids.
After high school comes college and it is hard to think of the “college” movie before Animal House. Animal House opened up the floodgates for a series of similar university-age party comedies (Porky’s, Revenge of the Nerds, Van Wilder, Dead Man on Campus, Road Trip) and a new film genre was born. The funny thing about Animal House is that for many people, they remember it as being so outrageous and wild when they think about watching it the first time, and after revisiting it, are disappointed with its cheesy jokes and tame party antics. I wonder if that will be the same for Old School—the college party movie of the last ten years. Old School brought a new aspect to this genre and that was the college party hosted by adults who are supposed to be beyond this childish mentality. Therein lies its genius. Watching a forty-something Frank Ricard (Will Ferrell) transform into “Frank the Tank” to the thrill of screaming college-wannabes and Mitch Martin (Luke Wilson) have sex with his boss’s twenty-something daughter with no repercussions lets anyone who has already graduated wonder about what boundaries they can push. The advertising world in corporate America has done a great job of pushing the ideology that 30 is the new 20. The forever-young attitude is the engine behind the Kerouacian American Dream. Making it humorous sells it.
Then there comes life after college—the doomsday when weekends are spent choosing linens at Bed, Bath and Beyond rather than recovering from hangovers. That is, unless you are someone who spends bachelor parties in Las Vegas mistakenly high on rohypnol. The Hangover is funny. In fact, it is downright hilarious. What I wonder about with movies like this is its intended audience. The comic appeal of The Hangover goes beyond its jokes and into the consciousness of the people it attracts. So many young men in this country yearn to party like they are still frat-bros in college, but only with the excessive money to now do so. Unlike American Graffiti, films like Old School and The Hangover are the quintessential uncoming-of-age story. It would be too pretentious to attempt to glue a message to its existence. It says exactly what it presents—just a bunch of knuckleheads having a good time.
The Hangover isn’t high school or college, it’s life after both, and we have to ask ourselves, at what point is the party over?