Monday, June 20, 2011

The Hangover, Part One, Part Two: Tyson

In last week's final post, I mentioned that it was not clear to me what The Hangover was targeting in its comedy about pedophilia. Christopher Morris satirises media hysteria and public outrage; The Simpsons is in a twenty-year dialogue with television culture; but The Hangover? Anything? Bueller? Bueller? Sometimes jokes do not have much heft, and that's okay.

One of the more interesting things in The Hangover is Mike Tyson's crucial cameo; in a film that refrains from connecting with the real and the consequential, having somebody play himself is enormously satisfying, an anchor into the world. Apparently, during their renegade night of safe-white-male-terrorism, the wolf-pack stole Mike Tyson's tiger. CCTV footage leads Tyson to the men and he insists they bring the tiger back; eventually they do so, not without some adventure.

Up until the final moment, Tyson is a mesmerising figure. When he first appears, he lashes a punch that knocks out Alan. Violent but sensitive, Tyson peers out in a half-squint as if unsure what is expected of him. He is a figure of athleticism and strange delicacy, a reservoir of brutal power but also etiquette not unlike, perhaps, a house-trained tiger. At least twice he is addressed as “Champ”, an honourary term he occupies without irony or condescension – despite the multitude of scandals, he is one of the greatest boxers in history. When he first appears in the hotel room, he is shadow-drumming along with a Phil Collins song. It would be a mistake to see this only as a joke about a burly black athlete being a fan of the definitively white, 1980s chartbuster. Collins is also a point of reference, consistent precisely with that admixture of violence and sensitivity, contextualising Tyson as a particular modern American archetype, the alienated male whose violences are not entirely unforgiven, whose self-justifications are not entirely unheard: he is bound in the reference to Phil Collins with Bret Easton Ellis’s Patrick Bateman and Eminem’s Stan.

But then at the end of the film, there’s a joke. One of the wolf-pack has commented apologetically about bad behaviour the night before. Tyson laughs it off, saying that one cannot be held responsible for what one does when drunk. The men around him onscreen laugh. On the one hand, Tyson is being generous: he forgives the debaucheries that these men have committed against him, his property, his tiger, and, indeed, all of Las Vegas. The figure of always-possibly forgiven violence becomes a figure of forgiveness; the Phil Collins reference is not so jarring. On the other hand, the line is still also a reference to Tyson’s own behaviour – and, irrevocably, to the charge of rape for which he went to prison. In a role that rehabilitates Tyson as wiser, self-parodic, and, insistently, as a man who deserves the title Champ, and in a film where Tyson is one of the few intersections with consequence and reality, this last line, which earns the onscreen laughter of the men around him, suggests a glib rehabilitation and easy forgiveness, one in which the easy-to-forgive debaucheries of fictional characters in a mock-up of Las Vegas are blended with something real, something uncertain, but something very dark. And just to make sure we know, the men laugh. This is the internal laughter that runs throughout The Hangover, the laugh track that lets us know what is supposed to be funny and what is not. It also runs throughout The Hangover, Part Two, as we shall see in a week of posts, I kid you not, dedicated to The Hangover oeuvre.

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