Thursday, May 26, 2011


Say what you will about the 2009 surprise comedy smash hit The Hangover, it had a pretty great premise. Four guys head out to Vegas for a bachelor party, wake up the next morning with no memory of the night before, and find that they’ve lost the groom. It becomes a mystery comedy that involves stumbling through various clues to piece together enough memory of the night’s debauchery to find their missing friend and get him to the church on time.

Director Todd Phillips and writers Craig Mazin and Scot Armstrong didn’t use the great premise to make a great comedy. In fact, I would say they made a solid effort that succeeds to the extent that it does despite itself. They made a mystery first, a comedy second and that’s why it works. Sure, it can be funny, but that’s not the main interest for me. It’s filled with unexpected incidents and genuine surprises that bounce along and manage to cover over the ugly aftertastes of some of the jokes. It looks good and moves quickly and, at the end of it all, the mostly unlikable characters have learned their lessons and are now, hopefully, better people for all the torture and punishment they have to face as a result of the consequences of their actions.

And that’s precisely where The Hangover Part II starts to go wrong. These characters have completed their arcs. They have gone through a hellish party and a worse aftermath and have emerged with their flaws exposed and ready for mending. The sequel takes these same exact guys (Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, Zach Galifianakis, and Justin Bartha) and has them make all the same mistakes only much more dangerously and much more repulsively. It takes a once moderately enjoyable premise, runs it straight into the ground and keeps on digging.

This time it’s a wedding for Ed Helms, not Justin Bartha. This time, the wedding is in a small village in Thailand, the hometown of the parents of the bride (Jamie Chung). This time, the guys set off for Bangkok with the bride’s pre-med little brother (Mason Lee) in tow. He’s the guy who gets lost while Bartha manages to skip out unscathed so its once again Cooper, Helms, and Galifianakis stumbling through the city the next morning discovering the extent of the damage done. Turns out, the damage is more or less what you would expect if you’ve seen the first film, but uglier and much, much less humorous.

The events of The Hangover Part II are beyond unfunny. They’re actively repulsive and deliberately upsetting. Watching the movie is hardly enjoyable; it’s an act of endurance. It’s crass and putrid in its unquestioning giggling at a white, rich, heterosexual, ethnocentric, xenophobic, American male rampage through the squalor and poverty of the backstreets of Bangkok.

How bad is it? It’s a movie that has an extended gag about transgender sex workers with the full extent of the joke being “tee-hee, she’s a he!” There’s a joke about underage prostitution that goes something like this. Helms to a strip-club owner, asking about the missing college student: “We’re looking for a kid!” Owner: “How young?” The end credits include, among various still images, a shockingly jocular reenactment of a famous Vietnam War photograph of a close-up gunshot to the head. These aren’t jokes; they are lazy attempts to provoke laughter through ugly observations that are wrongly assumed to be funny just because they push buttons and cross lines.

What makes it all the more troubling is the relative skill with which the whole thing is put together. It’s a glossy Warner Brothers’ production with real skill in the cinematography, the editing, the set design, and in the casting, which even includes a part for the great Paul Giamatti, of all people. He gets a chance to play a Bangkok crime boss with great growly gusto that’s saddening in how much of a wasted opportunity it is. I would love to see the same performance fleshed out and put to good use in a much better movie.

All of this skill has gone down the drain and straight into the gutter with the material itself. This isn’t merely a comedy that fails through its lack of laughs or its lack of imagination (it’s practically a beat by beat transposition of its predecessor), though those are certainly big counts against it. The movie fails most of all in its mistaking vileness for standard, run-of-the-mill vulgarity and in mistaking flawed characters who learn something for beloved characters loved for their depravity. Though that last bit about why, exactly, some audiences like these characters so much may be truer than I’m willing to admit. If this makes as much money, or even nearly as much money as the first, here’s hoping that someone takes the advice of one Zooey Deschanel, who tweeted that “Perhaps hangover pt. 3 should just be called "intervention"”

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