The Hang over is like an infernal comedy machine. Surrender your soul to its foul mesh of cheap cleverness and vulgarity. and you howl like a delighted demon. Resist, and you feel all sense and sensibility being crushed in its cogs.

This relentlessly jocular movie about a runaway bachelor party in Las Vegas is designed to deliver lower-belly laughs with sleek contemporary efficiency.

The director, Todd Phillips, with comedy-club timing, uses audience squeals and applause as part of this woefully mechanical film's expert lubrication. Phillips poured some cross-generational fizz into his previous big hit Old School, helped by comic actors like Will Ferrell and Vince Vaughn, who weren't afraid to show what "overgrown frat boy" really looked like.

Scrape away the post-Judd Apatow frankness about the human phallus (and fellatio) in The Hangover, and the humor is a lot moldier: the equivalent of "Take my wife, please," except most of the characters aren't married yet. The one sympathetic female who wins any screen time is, of course, the male fantasy of the escort-stripper with a heart of gold, generically called Jade and played with more sparkle than the film deserves by Heather Graham.

The effort of three friends to find Doug Billings (Justin Bartha) and get him to his wedding after they all black out in Vegas is what Hitchcock would have called "the McGuffin" - nothing more than an excuse for the action - and it's a fast-food McGuffin at that, something that belongs on the Dollar Menu.

Indeed, less important to the movie than Doug's bride, Tracy Garner (Sacha Barrese), is his future brother-in-law, Alan Garner (Zach Galifianakis). Impossibly needy and incompetent, Alan both catalyzes a long night of disaster and expresses the longing for brotherliness that the others feel but are too embarrassed to convey.

Galifianakis has been winning considerable press as a New Wave conceptual stand-up, but what he does in this film (written by Jon Lucas and Scott Moore) is in the ancient baggy-pants tradition of doing anything for a laugh. Whether showing a sleazy eye for young flesh (he's legally bound to keep his distance from schools or Chuck E. Cheese restaurants), asking whether Julius Caesar lived at Caesar's Palace, or displaying phenomenal guts and acumen at blackjack, he's alternately perverted, stupid or super-smart - whatever fits the requirements of each jokey scene.

At least Zach's Alan is a lot livelier than Bradley Cooper's Phil Wenneck, a private teacher happy to bankroll his Vegas trip with money filched from his wealthy students. Cooper plays Phil as little more than an alpha male just smart enough to know the derivation of the term. (You're not surprised that for all his bitter talk about the need to get away from what older comics called "the old ball and chain," he experiences blissful reunions with his wife and kid.)

Ed Helms' Stu Price - a dentist in a long-term relationship with a humorless, controlling woman, Melissa (Rachael Harris), who is about as sexy as a root canal - is the movie's resident Dr. Doofus. (The characters use a less polite term with a similar first syllable.) He finds his manhood with the help of Jade. Is there anything today's late-night comedy audience loves more than a dweeb who locates his virility? Maybe a slob like Alan getting himself together and dressing up sharp for the blackjack table.

The clues strewn across their Vegas suite the morning after their lost night, including a tiger, an infant and live poultry, turn the movie into a farcical twist on a whodunit - a what-happened? - that transforms each plot twist into a punch line. But the clues suggest more resonant or inventive possibilities than the ensuing lackluster explanations.

Except for an ace comic-menace appearance by Mike Tyson (why didn't Sony Pictures Classics release Tyson after this movie?), the movie never gets wilder, only louder and rowdier. Rob Riggle always struck me as the odd-man-in on The Daily Show, mistaking raucousness for wit. He's right at home in the absolute worst scenes of The Hangover, playing a Vegas policeman who makes our heroes the center of a Taser demonstration. The technology is modern. But like everything else in the film, the scene is the equivalent of vaudevillians smacking each other in the head and groin with rubber chickens.

The Hangover

(Warner Bros.) Starring Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms and Zach Galifianakis. Directed by Todd Phillips. Rated R for language, nudity and drug references. Time 100 minutes.

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