By Preston Wilder
Plot and comedy have always been distant acquaintances. The comedies of W.C. Fields – to name one example – mock the idea of plot at every turn, and they’re 70 years old. These days, the two are practically strangers. The current comedy template (see, for instance, Ted, Identity Thief, Get Him to the Greek, etc etc) starts with an ostensible plot then uses it as a springboard for outrageous, envelope-pushing hi-jinks, a series of highlights playing a bit like the Jackass films (which do away with plot altogether). The whole idea of clockwork comedy structure is wildly out of fashion.
And what about The Hangover? Well, the men-behaving-badly franchise – now moving into its inevitable threequel, “the epic finale to the trilogy” according to the poster – has always been somewhere in between. The first film was downright classical in its narrative, unfolding the events of That Night like a well-worked mystery – yet its fans mostly loved its excess, the extreme detail (the tiger, the baby, Mike Tyson as himself, Ken Jeong as manic Mr. Chow), the sense of things veering out of control. The sequel amped up the gross factor – Stu and the ladyboy! the monkey and the “nibble job”! – letting the plot go stale. It was a hit, but critics cried déjà vu – so Part 3 now does the opposite, holding back on 18-rated detail (it’s actually rated ‘15’ in Cyprus) and adding a straightforward plot involving gangsters and stolen gold bullion.
In theory, I applaud what it’s doing. I’m sick of lazy comedies hiding their cynicism behind a veil of ‘outrageousness’, and I crave coherent plots with a beginning, middle and end. In practice, alas, the film doesn’t work – partly because this new plot, though coherent, is boring. We miss the old joke of our ‘Wolf Pack’ heroes – Phil (Bradley Cooper), Stu (Ed Helms) and Alan (Zach Galifianakis), plus perpetually-lost Doug (Justin Bartha) – stumbling around obliviously, freaked out by each new development. This is standard action comedy with men on a mission (find Mr. Chow and recover stolen gold, or Doug gets it), self-consciously harking back to earlier instalments and even throwing in some weak references to Shawshank Redemption and Midnight Cowboy.
The appeal of the Hangover movies is the notion of emasculated men forced into adventure, and thereby recovering their manhood (Stu had a ball-busting fiancée in the first film, and finally showed her who was boss). This one doesn’t have that dynamic: everyone’s too settled, and when adventure comes they take it as given, like they’ve done this before (which of course they have). The biggest misstep lies in trying to ‘explain’ Alan, the joker in the pack – a creepy alien in the first film, a manchild in the sequel, and now a kind of holy fool who blurts out uncomfortable truths, secretly feels bad about his relationship with his dad (“I really let him down”) and finally settles down with a good woman, changing his dissolute life and even discovering sex. “She lets me mount her,” he explains to the others. “Which relaxes me.” Do we really want a more relaxed Alan? I think not.
Has the franchise simply gone soft? Is that the problem? Well, yes and no. The first two films traded in obnoxious behaviour, so the underlying attitudes made sense – but Hangover 3 is tamer so the distasteful detail stands out, like a rancid aftertaste. “I didn’t know you worked for PETA. What a pussy!” sneers Mr. Chow – but you don’t have to work for PETA to wonder why animals get such a raw deal here, from an unfortunate giraffe in the early scenes (Phil, obnoxiously: “He killed a giraffe. Who gives a f**k?”) to a couple of poisoned dogs and a rooster smothered, quite gratuitously, with a pillow. Then there’s the frequent gay-panic jokes, mostly linked to Chow who, inter alia, sniffs Alan’s butt and tries to entice him into taking off his shirt. All this was par for the course when the films peddled a laddish, bachelor-party vibe – but the threequel takes a different tack, so the macho insensitivity just seems knee-jerk and embarrassing.
Hangover 3 falls between two stools, too beholden to its predecessors to be totally new yet curtailing the juicy comic shocks fans have come to expect. The biggest laugh comes in the final credits, with the boys waking up to another Morning After – clearly signalling a ‘Hangover Part 4’, despite the talk of trilogy. My guess is that Cooper (now an Oscar-nominated actor) wants out of the franchise, but Galifianakis may well return, maybe in a spin-off – and of course any sequel will go heavy on ‘outrageous’ jokes and light on plot, because The Hangover Part III has been met with lukewarm reviews and not-great box office. It’s a shame; the film tries hard, but it dies on the screen. “I’ve got an idea – but you’re not going to like it,” says one of our heroes, and the same might be said of Part 3. Unlike Part 2, which just coasted mindlessly, it has an idea. But you’re not going to like it.
DIRECTED BY Todd Phillips
STARRING Zach Galifianakis, Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, Ken Jeong
US 2013 100 mins