Todd Phillips is all about the bro-down. In his short directing career he's produced an unaired exposé on frat houses and a Phish documentary, and he directed both the Tom Green stinker Road Trip and the considerably funnier Will Ferrell vehicle Old School. His biggest commercial venture to date? A reimagining of television's famous cop bros, Starsky Hutch.

His newest film, The Hangover, plays to Phillips' strengths. It's a bro-down film set in the bro mecca of Las Vegas, a city Phillips basically jizzes all over in the establishing shots of the opening credits—pretty near-stills of Vegas' ever-morphing skyline. The plot, too, sounds disturbingly like quintessential bro cinema: Four dudes get wasted at a bachelor party and stumble drunkenly through the repercussions.

Only something funny happens on the way to a routine Hollywood man-comedy: Phillips gives a comedic genius his first big break and rediscovers the lost art of screwball.

There are few clues early on that this one could be special. One-dimensional groom Justin Bartha heads to Vegas in a doomed Mercedes Benz with three pals: Phil (forgettable straight man Bradley Cooper) is the bad-boy teacher who accepts bribes from his students; Stu (Ed Helms, The Office's Andy) is a pussywhipped dentist; Alan (Zach Galifianakis) is the groom's disturbed new brother-in-law, who may or may not be a pedophile.

The bros' night in Vegas is a predictably drunken (and unintentionally roofied) blur. But less predictably, we are shown none of the night's original hijinks, only the hijinks' aftermath—which involves a mercifully disappeared groom, an abandoned baby and Mike Tyson's tiger. It's in this amnesic construction that The Hangover breaks its mold. Each loving detail of the trashed Caesars Palace suite raises a question, from the burning leather chair to the lone wandering chicken. And Phillips, admirably, avoids even fleeting use of the flashback as a cinematic device—instead, piecing the scene back together is a task left largely to the audience's imagination.

None of which would be particularly groundbreaking if it were performed by, say, the cast of Road Trip. But with the anal-retentive Helms in a constant panic ("Our friend Doug is probably facedown in a ditch right now with a meth head butt-fucking his corpse!") and the sweet but outright insane Galifianakis ruminating ("I didn't know they gave out rings at the Holocaust"), the goose chase to connect the dots from the previous evening seems brimming with possibility. Fate is cruel to our heroes, but Phillips allows them moments of reflection, which Helms often spends singing.

As good as Helms is, it's Galifianakis who makes this film required summer viewing. The bearded underground comic's character is essentially his own intense and awkward stand-up persona with a few extra-special needs thrown in for good measure. Dressed in attire that's supposed to be outlandish but looks like your average Portland show-goer, he's given the freedom to describe himself as a "one-man wolf pack," and to lash out with fury when his man-purse is crushed ("Hey—there's Skittles in there!"). Despite the character's eccentricities, he's actually treated with some degree of respect from his new friends. He has to be: he's incredible.

Without Galifianakis and Helms, The Hangover could have been more Dude, Where's My Car? than The Big Lebowski. Unnecessary riff-rock and a few overeager supporting characters slow the laughs, and when Phillips gets himself in a logistical pickle, he wraps things up with a nice little Hollywood bow. Still, give credit where it's due: Todd Phillips just broke your new favorite comedian and reinvented the madcap comedy all in one stroke. By the time the credits roll and we're finally clued in to photos from the lost evening, things get pants-pissing funny, and we wish that most timeless of wishes: that we could just have a little more time with our bros.


The Hangover

is rated R. It opens Friday at Cedar Hills, Eastport, Cinema 99, CineMagic, Bridgeport, Cinetopia, City Center, Cornelius, Division, Evergreen, Lloyd Center, Movies on TV, Oak Grove, Pioneer Place, Sandy, Sherwood, St. Johns Twin Cinema-Pub and Wilsonville.