“The Hangover” series has turned out to be a lot like the titular post-inebriation state. There was an initial burst of wild fun that has given way to hours of pain and suffering that makes you wonder if the fun part was worth it in the first place.
It is clear now that the first film, a very good comedy in a genre that maybe sees two or three releases per year they could actually be called very good, either lacked the depth to set the grounds for a proper sequel or lacked a director in Todd Phillips capable of recapturing the magic. After a failure of a second installment, the so-called Wolfpack is now back for an even worse third. Like the effects of a very long night, this is a series that just can’t go away soon enough.
The Wolfpack of course includes Zach Galifianakis’ psychopathic Alan, Ed Helms’ squishy dentist Stu, Bradley Cooper’s bored middle school teacher Phil, and Justin Bartha’s Doug, such a thin character that he barely receives 10 minutes of screen time here. The quartet is thrust into the middle of a quasi gang war involving Chow, Ken Jeong’s deranged, nigh-invincible criminal, freshly escaped from a Bangkok prison. Doug is kidnapped by mob boss Marshall (John Goodman), with the ransom being that the Wolfpack must capture Chow, who stole a fortune in gold bars from Marshall.
Where the first film gave the three leads dimension, here Stu and Phil are assigned precisely zero personal obstacles to overcome other than the ludicrous Chow-related tasks at hand. Alan has gone from amusingly offputting to psychotically repulsive, yet is the only Wolfpack member left with an actual character arc, in that he still seeks acceptance from the friends he admires. But even this thread is barely existent, since Phillips ultimately resolves Alan’s issues with a shrug, as if he thinks skipping the part where the resolution makes sense is a virtue.
Jeong is far and away the most talented comic actor of the group (yes, more so than Galifianakis) and Phillips seemingly recognizes this, expanding Chow to a lead with more screen-time here than he received in the previous two films combined. Jeong scores a few laughs, something the film desperately needs, with an irreverent take on this violent goofball caricature (one gag that’s low on cleverness but succeeds by dent of Jeong’s work is a karaoke performance of Nine Inch Nails’ song “Hurt”). By the end of “The Hangover Part III,” Chow boasts substantially more depth than the whole Wolfpack, albeit the sort of depth granted by a talented actor going for broke.
Though a comedy, “The Hangover Part III” has been noted by many critics as lacking the number of intentional jokes that one would expect of a property known for being funny. This is true, and perhaps there was a certain wisdom to the creative choice, as the first “Hangover,” while certainly heavier on humor, excelled largely because Phillips directed it as if it were a thriller/mystery focused on character. Its main personalities were distinct, interfacing in believable ways with one another despite the absurdity of the premise, working towards solving a mystery of some import. The characters were colorful, the events lightly surreal. But now, these qualities have bled dry into something merely idiotic and, much worse, dull, making the viewer crave the kind of riotous laughs that aren’t attempted.
To compensate for characters who are shallower than the kiddie pool, Phillip ups the action, with a larger number of chase scenes and even a moderate body count, something both of the previous films lacked altogether. The violence isn’t as off-putting as it might be in another comedy franchise, since this series has been somewhat rough from the start, but it is pure screenwriting malpractice when Stu and Phil are transformed into action heroes, as they are merely men operating as best they can under enormous pressure.
The most that can be said to “The Hangover Part III”‘s credit is that, unlike its immediate predecessor, it is not merely a lame copy of the original. Instead, it’s a lame spinoff of the original, one that features the same characters as before but can’t find anything interesting to do with them. Nonetheless, there was profit to be had, so Warner Bros. green-lit the project. I’m critic who doesn’t fault studios and filmmakers for making sequels that are guaranteed hits, but as a favor to the fans who ensured such hit-status in the first place, they should aggressively pursue the original level of quality.