Friday, May 24, 2013

The Hangover, Part III: Out with a whimper

The Hangover, Part III (2013) • View trailer 
2.5 stars. Rating: R, for pervasive profanity and vulgar humor, some violence, a bit of drug content and some fleeting nudity
By Derrick Bang

The third — and presumably concluding — entry in this franchise is nothing like its two predecessors.

Which is quite bizarre. And likely to irritate Wolfpack fans.

Having reluctantly agreed to follow Leslie Chow's (Ken Jeong, center right) scheme for
breaking into his own house, the Wolfpack members — from left, Phil (Bradley Cooper),
Alan (Zach Galifianakis) and Stu (Ed Helms) — study an elaborate model and prepare
to add breaking-and-entering to their already checkered résumés.
I appreciate writer/director Todd Phillips’ desire not to do the same ol’ stuff yet again; in that sense, it’s refreshing to see him try something different. But this particular case of “something different” utterly abandons all the hallmarks that made the two previous films so popular with arrested adolescents.

No abandoned babies or monkeys this time. No out-of-control bachelor parties or Bangkok benders. No chipped teeth, no tattoos. Nothing, in fact, that embarrasses, humiliates, physically tarnishes or debases these guys to any degree.

So what fun is that?

Nobody gets hung over, either ... not from booze, not from drugs, not from anything else.

I must note, in fairness, that a brief post-credits tag scene delivers everything that's missing from the film itself ... so don't depart too quickly. But that's much too little, far too late.

Which makes this film’s title a betrayal, along with its plotline. Phillips and co-scripter Craig Mazin have slipped their characters into the parallel universe of a heist comedy: a detour that, ironically, probably will be viewed as more satisfying to folks who prefer not to wallow in sleaze.

But wallowing in sleaze is the Wolfpack job description. Phillips’ detour here is akin to discovering that one’s most disreputable local fraternity has transformed itself into the epitome of Christian civility.

Well, no; things haven’t gotten that pure. This film’s R rating is well earned for pervasive profanity, because these guys still drop F-bombs the way most of us use descriptive adjectives. And yes, there’s a bit of violence and drug content. And one burst of nudity at a rather unexpected moment.

And a ghastly incident involving a giraffe. And a low freeway overpass.

All that said, though, this still feels like Wolfpack Lite.

Two years have passed since the events detailed in the previous film. Phil (Bradley Cooper), Stu (Ed Helms) and Doug (Justin Bartha) are happily married and enjoying their blissfully uneventful lives. Disaster magnet Leslie Chow (Ken Jeong) is half a world away, rotting in a Thai prison.

Unfortunately, “calm” isn’t a satisfying state for the Wolfpack’s final member, the petulant, self-centered and eternally out-of-synch Alan (Zach Galifianakis). Once again off his meds and prone to ill-advised impulses — such as purchasing that giraffe — Alan has become even more of a loose cannon than usual.

(Actually, the incident with the giraffe — and its tasteless climax — would have been right at home in the first two films. It’s almost as if Phillips decided to tease us with this cringe-worthy hiccup, before subsequently defying all expectations.)

A family crisis sends Alan even further over the edge, at which point the rest of the gang stage an intervention. The proposed solution: a road trip, after which Phil, Stu and Doug will deliver Alan into the tender (?) hands of some well-staffed facility for the terminally bewildered.

Craving any excuse for quality time with his best buds, Alan agrees. He doesn’t get an opportunity for second thoughts, because the guys get kidnapped by a highly irritated crime boss — John Goodman, as Marshall — who has his own history with the maniacal Leslie Chow. Millions of dollars’ worth of gold in history, in fact, which Chow apparently stole from Marshall, a few years back.

Cue a brief recap of events from the first two films, with this new incident involving Chow and Marshall’s gold deftly worked into the fringes of what we’ve previously seen.

Marshall is seriously angry. He wants his gold back, and word is that Chow has escaped from the aforementioned Thai prison. Wisely assuming that prior association should count for something, Marshall releases Phil, Stu and Alan, with orders to locate Chow and “detain” him. Doug will be held as insurance, and failure will result in a bullet to the young man’s brain.

As it turns out, finding Chow isn’t all that difficult. (No surprise there; we wouldn’t have a movie otherwise.) Recovering the gold proves harder; Chow knows where it is, but getting it will require an elaborate scheme, etc., etc. Naturally, things go awry, with subsequent events bringing our heroes back to Las Vegas, where their lives first went astray back in 2009.

Along the way, they re-unite with Jade (Heather Graham), the escort with a heart of gold from the first film; they also meet a new friend, an irritable pawnshop dealer named Cassie (Melissa McCarthy). Irritable, that is, to everybody except Alan.

The heist issues and complications with Marshall and Chow notwithstanding, this film’s core concerns Alan’s journey toward manhood. I’m not persuaded Galifianakis has the acting chops for this supposed personality shift, but Alan certainly becomes easier to endure. Indeed, his encounters with Cassie reveal a softer, smitten side. Galifianakis and McCarthy are quite funny together, and they have a great bit with a shared lollypop.

Alan’s reunion with Jade’s son — the good-natured infant toted around, back in the first film — isn’t nearly as satisfying. Phillips and Mazin apparently intend this Zen-like encounter to be spiritually uplifting for Alan, but Galifianakis’ blank expression simply doesn't convey the necessary emotional subtlety. Rather than some sort of epiphany, this useless scene drags the film to a brief standstill.

Actually, personalities always have been a problem with this series. Cooper, so engaging and credible with the wild mood swings of his Oscar-nominated character in Silver Linings Playbook, still can’t get a handle on Phil. At times he’s thoughtful and kind; at other times he’s impatient and quite callous. Granted, Phil is the strong, handsome and outwardly polished member of the Wolfpack, but in terms of emotional stability, he’s just as unpredictable as Alan.

From one moment to the next, Phil’s attitude toward his friends is completely random; we never know whether the next words will come from Nice Phil or Toxic Phil. Cooper obviously is capable of much better, so we have to blame Phillips for inconsistent writing and clumsy direction.

Helms, on the other hand, has always been consistent with his handling of Stu, as the eternally put-upon victim. All the worst stuff typically happens to Stu, although “worst,” in this film, amounts to little more than verbal brow-beating from Alan. Even so, Helms’ exasperated expressions are marvelous, as are his frantic attempts to depict Stu as a Guy In Control, when in fact he’s almost never in control.

Bartha is little more than a tag-along, as always has been the case. He depicts Doug as a pleasant guy, but spends most of his time here as an off-camera hostage. Very little chance for character depth.

Jeong is fearlessly crazed, as always, as the loose-cannon Chow. A little of Jeong goes a very long way, though, and he wears out his welcome as this flick progresses. Spontaneous bits of nonsense — a tuneless karaoke performance, slurping up dog food from a bowl on the floor — aren’t nearly as funny as Phillips and Jeong seem to assume.

Goodman, on the other hand, is memorably brutal as the vengeful Marshall, and Mike Epps makes a brief but droll return as “Black Doug.”

This third Hangover clearly is an effort to bring closure to the Wolfpack, complete with the equivalent of a final-scene walk into the sunset, accompanied by flashbacks to earlier group strolls that took place under unhappier circumstances in the two prior films. But this is a flat and unsatisfying send-off: a clumsily plotted escapade obviously mandated by financial desire, and not at all by artistic necessity.

And a certain disappointment to fans who wanted more of the coarse behavior that put Phil, Stu and Alan on the map.

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