Register Wednesday | September 19 | 2018

Plunging into the mainstream: can Hollywood make a star out of Zach Galifianakis?

So after much delay, I saw the new Todd Phillips (Old School, Road Trip) comedy The Hangover last night at the Rainbow Cinemas in Toronto. Besides falling victim to Frat Pack comedy formulaics that dictate that it's okay to wax patently misogynist for 90-or-so minutes as long as you wrap things up with a fairy-tale wedding, the film was pretty damn funny, with enough solid yuk-‘em-ups to give Harold Ramis’ upcoming Year One a run for its money.

What was most interesting about The Hangover wasn’t so much its treatment of male bonding (or male frontal nudity), or its timely deployment of a not altogether tasteless 9/11 joke, but its motley assemblage of budding Hollywood personalities. Where Old School, Phillips’ last truly funny comedy (read: not Starsky & Hutch, not School For Scoundrels), was erected on the then-fertile comic personas of Luke Wilson, Vince Vaughn and, of course, Will Ferrell, all of whom had achieved a considerable level of stardom by 2003, The Hangover is a different animal. Instead of merely casting stars in his latest meditation on the terminal adolescence of bunch of thirty-something men, Phillips fashions his own. For the most part, the film’s recognizable stars (Alias’s Bradley Cooper and The Office’s Ed Helms) have, apart from some support roles in feature-length comedies, earned their chops on the small screen.

Most interesting of movie’s rag-tag comic threesome is Zach Galifianakis. In his scene-stealing, movie star turn as weirdo beardo brother-in-law Alan, Galifianakis’s name has been twisting the tongues of most anyone talking about The Hangover. And for good reason. Besides being the funniest thing in the film (Mike Tyson’s much-advertised cameo is sorely underutilized), he also accounts for what resounding heart there is in a film that’s this bawdy, mean-spirited and woman-hating. Pleasantly chubby, scraggily bearded, and unembarrassed about carrying a man-purse (or satchel, you know, like the kind Indiana Jones has), his character exudes the kind of naïve man-child charm that allows him to get away with making a joke about the Holocaust.

Last month, John Wray had a great piece in The New York Times Magazine chronicling Galifianakis’s sluggish rise to comedy pseudo-stardom, a move indebted as much to paying his dues as to his demonstrable alt-comedy cache. While Wray is perhaps a bit indulgent in touting him as “his generation’s great white comedic hope” (whatever that means), he’s diligent in giving Galifianakis the sort of attention he has long deserved. (And to that end, I apologize if this piece is little more than another contribution to the glut of "star on the rise!" literature that has emerged around Galifianakis of late.)

But his arrival his perhaps cemented by his upcoming appearance in the forthcoming Bruckheimer-produced Disney film G-Force, about a super secret team of, uh, gerbil spies. Sure it’s family-friendly pap, but it’s precisely the sort of stuff that allowed comedians like Galifianakis (or Patton Oswalt or David Cross) cash the sort of cheques that riffing in dingy college campus comedy clubs rarely affords them. And unlike his contemporaries, Zach is refreshingly effortless.

Where Cross is something of a reactionary, blogging vitriol when someone takes him to task for rearing his trademark balding, bespectacled head in Alvin and the Chipmunks, and Oswalt’s charisma is often hampered by his camera mugging in the Comedians of Comedy DVD (where he obnoxiously chest-beats for the “importance” of indie comedians like himself, Galifianakis, Brian Posehn and Maria Bamford), Galifianakis doesn’t seem to give a shit what you think about him. Even (especially?) if you like him.

What with Galifianakis having whiled away in the relative obscurity of Comedy Central, Adult Swim and indie film bit-parts, The Hangover begs the question of what’s next? Will his genuinely awkward physical presence and jejune goofballery punctuated by fits of schizoid rage successfully endear Galiufianakis to mainstream audiences? Is he American film comedy’s next Will Ferrell? (Does American film comedy need another Will Ferrell?)