Wednesday, May 25, 2011

In Theaters: "The Hangover Part II"

One of the first lines spoken in The Hangover Part II is “It happened again.” The same character proceeds to say, “No, this time we really fucked up!” Later, another character says—hold on, let me check my notes—“I can’t believe this is happening again!” These lines are the comedy sequel equivalent of “I’m gettin’ too old for this shit!” That’s some lazy, lazy writing friends, but it’s right at home in The Hangover Part II, which is one of the more crass motion pictures in recent memory.

The screenplay, written by Craig Mazin, Scot Armstrong, and Todd Phillips, goes as follows: that opening phone call is placed by Phil (Bradley Cooper), who is calling a wedding that our heroes are clearly not going to make. After the end credits, we back up to a week earlier, and see the gathering of friends and acquaintances for the wedding—and the bachelor party. A toast is proposed, and then we jump forward to the next morning; evidence of mayhem is strewn about, and someone is missing, but no one can remember what happened the night before, so they must piece the evening together from “clues” and witnesses. Somewhere along the way, Stu (Ed Helms) sings a song about their adventure. They make it to the wedding, of course, but as the picture ends, they discover the photographic evidence of their night, and agree to look at the photos once before deleting them. The photos play under the end credits.

Sound familiar? I would’ve given a spoiler warning, but if you’ve seen The Hangover, you’ve seen The Hangover Part II, which is less a sequel than a remake. I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen a follow-up that hewed so closely to the structure of its predecessor; it plays like they went back to the first film’s outline and just re-filled in the blanks, like some kind of R-Rated Comedy Mad Lib. If they spent more than a weekend on this script, I owe my moviegoing companion a shiny silver dollar.

Of course, there is an argument to be made that Phillips and his writers were merely playing it safe—hey, audience, if you want more Hangover, here ya go. But that doesn’t make the results any less lethargic. The original Hangover, from two summers ago, was a genuinely inventive and frequently uproarious comedy; the anything-goes nature of the storytelling and the ingenious structure (which was less gross-out comedy and more murder mystery) gave the film snap. It had a frantic comic momentum, and that’s what’s missing from The Hangover Part II—no matter how much our boys scream and yell, the Xerox construction bathes the picture in predictability, and predictability is anathema to screen comedy.

There are other problems. The film may very well suffer greatly from hitting theaters so hard on the heels of Bridesmaids, considering its utter bewilderment when it comes to female characters. Phil has a wife—has she uttered more than five lines in the entirety of both films? (I’m not sure she had any in this one.) What is their relationship? Who is the woman who’s married to this guy? Stu’s fiancĂ©e is a twentysomething Asian with supermodel looks; would it have killed them to give us one scene to understand her attraction to him? I don’t mean this as a knock on Ed Helms, who is a pleasant-enough looking guy—I merely mean that she must have some kind of quirky or interesting personality to be drawn to this nerdy dentist, several years her senior. But there’s no way to know; the character is written and played as a bland, pretty nothing.

There are, I must take pains to note, laughs here, some of them hardy. Most come courtesy of Zach Galifianakis, and the sheer pleasure of the fact that he is fronting major studio comedies is still enough to get me through mediocrities like this and his last collaboration with Phillips, Due Date. He doesn’t get any opportunities to surprise us this time around (as he did in the first film), but he gets his moments: the way he brushes off the bride’s brother’s toast at the rehearsal dinner (“Sit down, I got this”) for his own oddball speech; the way he mispronounces Thailand as “Thigh-land”; his delight with the monkey they’ve acquired; and his deadpan reaction (“What is this, like a magic show?”) to one of their darker discoveries. Ken Jeong is funny as well, going bigger, broader, and funnier with more screen time; Helms’s desperate mania continues to be a valuable compartment in his comic toolbox. Cooper gets a couple of good beats (when Stu tells him “I have a demon in me,” Cooper’s Phil deadpans, “So what?”), but he’s mostly reduced to being exactly the kind of expositionary straight man he so skillfully avoided reducing himself to in the first film.

But, as I said, the film did make me laugh (loudly on a couple of occasions), hence the two-star rating. Sometimes you’ll still laugh when you hear the same joke again. I laughed heartily when I saw The Hangover a second time; now, for all intents and purposes, I’ve seen it a third. About halfway through, Galifianakis wails, “I just wanted things to say the same!” If Warner Brothers were being completely honest, that’d be The Hangover Part II’s ad line.

"The Hangover Part II" opens Thursday in wide release.

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