Friday, May 27, 2011

The Hangover Part II: A case of the staggers

The Hangover Part II (2011) • View trailer for The Hangover Part II
Three stars (out of five). Rating: R, for profanity, drug use, sexual content, graphic nudity and flashes of violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.27.11

While The Hangover Part II probably will satisfy most of the folks who turned its 2009 predecessor into such a surprise hit, even avid fans will have to admit that the bloom has worn off the rose.
Stu (Ed Helms, left) gets ready to snatch a capuchin monkey — which
unknowingly carries an important document within its little vest — while Mr.
Chow (Ken Jeong, center) distracts the little beast, and Phil (Bradley Cooper)
keeps a wary eye on the Russian gangsters across the street.

The original's core premise relied on surprise: the means by which three badly hung-over guys determined just how wretchedly they had behaved the previous evening. That gimmick really only works once; this time out, no matter how much returning director Todd Phillips tries to freshen the salad, the result can't shake a been there/done that familiarity that breeds, if not contempt, then certainly ennui.

We know what's coming this time. We may not know the humiliating details — and Phillips delivers at least one grand sequence of ghastly embarrassment — but the key character riffs are easily anticipated.

When our three protagonists here repeatedly exclaim, "I can't believe this is happening again," they do so in an effort to acknowledge the obvious, while tying this film to their previous escapades. Unfortunately, we're occasionally inclined to agree with them: We can't believe it either.

Eager as I always am to credit — or blame — the scripters for a film's success or failure, I couldn't help noting the absence of the first outing's writing team of Jon Lucas and Scott Moore. They'd been quietly building a respectable résumé of romantic comedies, including Four Christmases and Ghosts of Girlfriends Past — neither of them classics, to be sure, but nonetheless showing promise and (here's the key) some character depth — and The Hangover was their breakout hit.

Rather than continue with a winning team, though, Phillips turned instead to writers Craig Mazin and Scot Armstrong, both known for lowest-common-denominator moron comedies such as Superhero Movie, Road Trip, Scary Movie 4 and the wretched big-screen remake of Starsky and Hutch. Not an ounce of character development between them. Oh, and Phillips snatched a writing credit himself this time, no doubt because he collaborated with Armstrong on several of the above-mentioned misfires.

The difference is obvious. Lucas and Moore write funny movies for adults. Mazin, Armstrong and Phillips write tasteless movies for the sort of arrested adolescents lampooned so well by Zach Galifianakis in this very film. Draw your own conclusions.

While the results, in Hangover II, aren't as relentlessly vulgar as an average Farrelly brothers outing — no explosions of excrement, I'm happy to report — there's no doubt Phillips & Co. sacrifice basic plot logic on the altar of ongoing torment for these three schlubs. They also cross the sympathy line once, and quite badly. Despite the first film's antics, nobody was permanently affected; even Stu (Ed Helms) pops up with a full set of teeth, as this story kicks off.

This time, however, a major character gets maimed for life ... and, sorry guys, but that ain't funny. The mere fact that it happens is bad enough; the added fact that nobody seems to care makes it even worse. It's damn near impossible to sympathize with the three misfit members of this "wolf pack" if they're gonna be that callous.


Good ol' Stu, about to tie the knot with lady love Lauren (Jamie Chung), and mindful of what happened the last time he was involved with a bachelor party, limits his friends to a pre-wedding trip brunch: coffee, pancakes and no alcohol. And the "friends" include only Phil (Bradley Cooper) and Doug (Justin Bartha); Alan (Galifianakis), primarily responsible for the previous calamity in Las Vegas, is absent by design.

But Phil isn't content to play it so safe, knowing that the wedding itself will take place at a gorgeous resort in Thailand; Doug also finds it unfair that Alan has been excluded. Both Phil and Doug guilt Stu into inviting Alan after all; then, once in Thailand, Stu relents further when even Lauren encourages him to let down his hair ... just a little. After all, the wedding is still two days away. OK then: one beer each, from sealed bottles, while seated on the beach, in front of a bonfire, on a gorgeous evening.

The dynamic is frayed a bit by the presence of Lauren's 16-year-old brother, Teddy (Mason Lee), a gifted cello virtuoso and Stanford pre-med student. Alan, feeling threatened by this perceived "interloper," misses no opportunities to diss the kid. Already, at these early stages, it must be mentioned that a little bit of Alan's fifth-grade petulance goes a long way, and Phillips milks that gag far beyond its sell-by date, as this film progresses.

So: a single beer on the beach, with everybody mindful of holding the line. Fade to cheerful, cozy black...

...after which Phil, Stu and Alan waken, nurturing skull-busting headaches, in a seedy Bangkok hotel room that's as hilariously filthy and grody as production designer Bill Brzeski can make it. A quick phone call later, remembering absolutely nothing of the previous 12 hours, the boys discover that Doug is safe and sound, back at the Thai resort; he retired early. But Teddy is nowhere to be found.

Nor, as it turns out, are Phil, Stu and Alan alone in the room. They're soon joined by the disreputable Mr. Chow (Ken Jeong, always a hoot), who contributed to the first film's over-the-top antics, and by an adorably garbed capuchin monkey with a fondness for cigarettes. (Card-carrying PETA members can relax; all the smoke — and the cigarettes' lighted ends — are created by CGI magic.)

Panicked into activity, Phil, Stu and Alan embark on a desperate search for Teddy; after all, it's not as if Stu's wedding could take place without Lauren's beloved younger brother.

And, so, our merry musketeers hurl themselves into Bangkok's steamy, sleazy underbelly. Slowly, painfully, they figure out how to retrace their steps. I'll not spoil any of what follows, except to acknowledge that they run the gamut from silent monastery monks to houses of very ill repute ... with several other stops along the way.

As usual, Stu discovers that he endured or precipitated the lion's share of ghastly misdeeds, and Helms absorbs the escalating shocks with amusing dollops of rising hysteria. As he demonstrated so well earlier this year, in Cedar Rapids, Helms makes a poignant underdog: a guy who is guilty of no more than a willingness to go along with whatever his best friends suggest ... even when he knows better.

Galifianakis, in great contrast, makes Alan insufferably obnoxious this time out. Although it's Alan's nature to be oblivious, his behavior — and particularly his dialogue — is clumsy and forced: more the product of Phillips' often misguided attempt at humor, than a natural outgrowth of situational insanity. Clearly, we're intended to find Alan endearing, in a withdrawn and sheltered way. Ah ... no. He's simply irritating.

Phil, the pack's hunky voice of stability, doesn't make much of an impact here. He endures no great traumas, arrives at no great solutions. He's also a bit nasty at times, which works against his image as a cheerful good-time guy. Cooper is essentially just along for the ride: an engaging presence with an affable smile ... and very little else. Phil was a much stronger force in the first film, and that guy seems missing in action here.

Jeong is hilarious, as always; Paul Giamatti is memorable in a small role. Jeffrey Tambor makes an eyeblink cameo as Alan's insufferably solicitous father, and one more notorious celebrity guest returns from the first film.

Everything builds to a clumsy finale that Phillips & Co. can't begin to sell: a "happily ever after" outcome that can't help raising eyebrows, given the circumstances. And while the parade of snapshots during the closing credits — when we, along with these characters, finally see the mischief they experienced that fateful night — compensate to a degree, there's no denying the obvious: This sophomore storyline is much weaker ... and the film suffers that lapse.

You shoulda stuck with the original writers, Mr. Phillips, rather than greedily putting your own thumbprint on the script. A man needs to know when his reach exceeds his grasp.

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