The Hangover and Amnesia Cinema

Is it just me, or do you keep running into people who want to talk about The Hangover? Box-office numbers seem to support my theory, since it’s held up considerably well for the three weeks it’s been out, raking in $153 million so far. Movies don’t stay at the top of the box office like that without good word-of-mouth, and I feel as if I’ve been overhearing these word-of-mouth recommendations for almost a month.

Sure, I’ve seen it, too. I’ve been told I have to just get over its raging misogyny because it’s a “dude movie,” and, I suppose if I ignore that, I can say that there are some pretty funny moments, especially from Ed Helms and Zach Galifianakis (who easily steals the entire movie, which is impressive because it’s his first real acting role).

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Mostly, though, I liked The Hangover because it belongs to a little-talked-about subgenre of movie: The Amnesia Movie. In The Hangover, three buddies wake up after a night of partying in Vegas, and can’t find the fourth member of their party or remember what they did the night before. Using whatever clues they can find in their pockets, they have to retrace their steps and figure out what they did the previous night. Lots of movies have this same basic blueprint: For some reason, main characters can’t rely on their own memories for basic information, so they have to go on investigations to find out about themselves. Amensia movies have all of the suspense and intrigue of regular whodunits, but dispense with the crime and procedural aspects of the mysteries in favor of something more psychological. Often, this leads to an Odyssey-like series of short episodes, which can be sharpened up or dumbed down as the movie requires. The best part is, as the audience of an amnesia movie, we know just as much as the characters—so we’re along for the ride.

So, if you liked The Hangover, here are some other amnesia films:

The Bourne Identity
A man wakes up, shot, knowing nothing about his past—but knows some serious karate moves and has a safe deposit box loaded with cash and international passports. He then has to go figure out why he’s so shady—which comes naturally because he also has crazy spy skills—and figure who he is and who wants to kill him. This is the amnesia formula taken to the extreme, since he’s not only investigating his own past, but he’s actually a spy.

Dark City
Murdoch, the main character in Dark City, is on the flip side of Jason Bourne. Instead of seeking out those who wronged him, he’s the one being sought out for wrongdoing: six prostitutes are dead, and Murdoch can’t remember if he killed them or not. And instead of a straight-ahead action movie like The Bourne Identity, Dark City is a great mish-mash of genres, combining sci-fi elements with film noir in a beautifully rendered city that lives in an alternate timeline.

Dude, Where’s My Car
This movie hews closest to the Hangover formula, so much so that I’ve heard people call The Hangover “Dude, Where’s My Groom?” Two idiots—you can’t tell if they’re stoned or just stupid, although it’s probably a combination of both—can’t remember where they parked their car, and the search for it leads them to cults, space aliens, and a sought-after device called the “continuum transfunctioner.” If you can get into the dopiness of it all, it’s sublimely silly, even if you know you’ll certainly kill some brain cells just by watching it.

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Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
The amnesia in this film is self-inflicted, since main character Joel Barish decided he wants all his memories of a past romance erased. From the warped mind of Charlie Kaufman, the movie takes a literal journey through Joel’s memories in a way that’s both confounding and delighting.

It’s not exactly an amnesia film, since the main character in Memento has short-term memory loss and can’t form new memories. This doesn’t stop him from embarking on an investigation, though, as he tries to find his wife’s killer with the help of Post-its, Polaroids, and tattoos to remind him of what he’s discovered already. Director Christopher Nolan—who did last year’s spectacular Dark Knight—confuses things even further by running the timeline of the movie backwards.

Mulholland Drive
I’m pretty sure this is an amnesia movie. I think the main character wakes up from a car crash with no memories, then tries to find out what happened to her. Then again, I never understand what happens in David Lynch movies, and this one is no exception. He is one weird dude.

Total Recall
Memory implantation, crazy Martians, and Arnold Schwarzenegger—Total Recall has everything you can want in a sci-fi or amnesia film, including Schwarzenegger shouting “Cohaagen, you got what you wanted; you must give those people air!”

The Hangover photos by Frank Masi.

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