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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: The Hangover Part II



The Hangover, Part II (Two Stars)

U.S.: Todd Phillips, 2011

I laughed a lot at 2009’s big comedy hit, The Hangover — that tense and raunchy tale of three longtime buddies at a wedding who wake up after a night of incredible but totally forgotten debauchery and have to try to figure out what happened and why the groom is now missing, have to try to reconstruct what awful things they all did last night while they were too blotto to remember.

I wasn‘t alone. Inflation is inflation, but The Hangover made a ton of money by any standard, enough to give it all-time comedy top-grossing honors.

At The Hangover, Part II though, I laughed hardly at all, barely cracked a smile. The big question is: Was it me or the movie?

The Hangover was the kind of movie that usually becomes ridiculous and offensive (like director Todd Phillips‘ follow-up movie Due Date), but here worked like an addled charm: a “wild and crazy guys” movie with an ingenious structure — a mystery story, without a murder (just barely) — and lots of funny, sometimes fairly intense male bonding between the three main characters: Phil the affable stud English teacher (Bradley Cooper), Stu the nervous, hooker-obsessed dentist (Ed Helms), and Alan, the freaky man-child, the wild card guy who keeps tipping the party and the morning after into madness. (He does in this movie too).

There was a fourth guy too: Doug the missing groom (Justin Bartha). But he missed almost everything — and, though now a non-groom, he does here too.

The first scene of the first movie was classic, hilarious — with Phil, Stu and Alan waking up in in a strange Vegas penthouse littered with the residue of their blowout the night before: a baby and a tiger, no Doug, Stu missing a tooth, and all of them, from then on, trying desperately to figure out  what happened, to find Doug and save the wedding. As I watched all this, like almost everyone else, I laughed. And I kept laughing all the way to the end — the end-titles candid photos of the orgy we never saw.

Now, a lot of people say that the main problem with The Hangover, Part II — and there seems to be general agreement that there is a problem with it — is that it just repeats the first movie all over again. So there‘s no surprise, no laughs, just the same-old same-old, endlessly repeated.

I don’t agree. I would have been delighted to watch The Hangover all over again in a different city, like New York, say, or Rome, or Rio de Janeiro, or Paris, or even back in Vegas. And I think something like that might actually have worked. The main problem here, I think, is the city that Phillips and his new co-writers Craig Mazin and Scot Armstrong chose for their rewind: Bangkok, Thailand — a locale that inevitably took them in a much darker direction. Bangkok, known for it degenerate night life and its smorgasbord of cheap or pricey prostitution, as well as the region’s tragic Vietnam War-era history, is more nightmarish and queasy-inducing than funny. And so is this movie.

There is a lot of repetition in Hangover II, but mostly of the first show’s plot elements, with variations, and not of its comic mood. Now it’s Stu that’s getting married, to a Thai beauty named Lauren (Jamie Chung), whose rich bully of a dad (Nirut Sirichanya) thinks dentist Stu is a bland dish of rice pudding. Stu tries to avoid the inevitable bachelor party but can’t; Alan screws everything up again. The three wake up in a sinister-looking apartment, with Lauren’s prodigy brother Teddy (Mason Lee, son of Ang) missing, but Teddy’s apparently chopped-off finger (with his school ring) seemingly present. The high-riding gay crook Mr. Chow (Ken Jeong) shows up again, along with various thugs, monks, and seeming gangsters. Once again, the guys all have their wangs in a wringer, and Phillips and the writers keep turning the crank.

And there is also the seeming constant problem of all sequels: the fact that (plot-wise) Phillips and his co-writers have to figure out ways to get these guys into pretty much the same situations they were in before, only this time in a different city. There’s a moral/human element too. The three (despite Stu’s feeble attempt to avoid the bash) seem to have learned nothing from their earlier mistakes. Instead, they get  into most of the same scrapes all over again. (That’s actually a bigger flaw in the movie than the plot recycling.)

But these are problems that clever writers can finesse. As I said, the big pitfall here is not that they decided to do the whole movie over again, but that they decided to do it in Bangkok.

I remember my reaction when I first saw the main poster image for The Hangover II, which shows us Phil, Stu and Alan, all in an obvious morning-after funk, looking wasted and wrung out, in a nasty-looking room somewhere in Bangkok — reputed to be one of the most sexually exploitive cities on earth, a reputation that this movie, with its transsexual strippers and fellatio-performing monkeys does little to soften.

It’s a striking poster and it suggests that something foul had happened to these guys, something worse than could ever have happened to them in Vegas, that they‘d turned the corner somewhere past the dark side of midnight. Their glum expressions and the seedy ambiance hinted at a real jam, something that might actually lead them over the edge.

Spoiler Alert

Not quite. Well, there is a death, sort of, and a grave injury — that finger — and Hangover II tries to convince us that it’s all okay, all in good fun. But that’s not what it feels like this time.

End of spoiler

That poster image was a view of the Damned — and the whole joke of The Hangover, was that Phil, Stu and Alan were only semi-damned.

These guys may have gotten into an awful scrape, but, since Hangover was a comedy — at least a movie that kept us laughing — we were fairly sure they’d come out okay. Somehow. Without that assurance, the story is a nightmare, and the three guys are close to being psychopaths. In The Hangover, they were only pretend psychopaths or occasional bingers, except of course for bearded, bearish, crazily suspicious Alan, who kept fouling everything up. (Tellingly, Galifianakis got most of the laughs, and he does here too.)

Despite Galifianakis, who gets a dubious near-skin-head hair-shave (another mistake, I think) the comedy seems muffled, even strangled, all the way through. Giamatti shows up as a glowering heavy. (Maybe he’s there to spur memories of Sideways, and I wish he had.) Even the monks are hostile and violent. Nick Cassavetes pops up as a macho tattoo artist, who gave Stu a Mike Tyson style facial tattoo; the tattoo guy was a role that was allegedly intended for Mel Gibson, and actually filmed in part by Liam Neeson, two very macho actors. Everything’s darker and more menacing.

Obviously the Hangover II gang wanted the jokes to have a real edge, to go farther out than anyone would have thought safe or comfortable. But in comedy, even the darkest comedy, like the original The Ladykillers or Barton Fink, you need to have a safety net, for the audience to feel good about laughing. I didn’t find the missing finger funny, ever — though Howard Hawks made me laugh at one in The Big Sky — or the transsexual stripper, or the fellatio-happy monkey, or the kick-ass monk. And what about that ugly end-titles parody of a famous Vietnam war photo, about which Roger Ebert has complained?

The actors have to go along with the mood, and it hurts everybody but Galifianakis, who starts out crazy. I got more and more annoyed at Cooper’s Phil for his “what the hell” attitude toward everything bad that happened. And Helms’ Stu does a hell of a lot just to prove he’s not rice pudding. It’s not just that the jokes of The Hangover II have an edge, or even too much edge. They’re almost all edge, and very little joke.

The Hangover II keeps edging toward total nightmare, and never quite plunging in. It has a very different feel than the first movie: meaner, darker, more reckless. It rarely felt right to me, even though we’re supposedly watching the same thing that made us laugh before. (We‘re not.)

In fact, the movie’s best scene has nothing to do with Bangkok. It’s a sequence near the beginning where Phil, Stu and Doug go to Alan’s house, and find him in an overgrown spoiled brat fanboy’s room, surrounded by pop culture artifacts, bossing around his mom, who’s feeding him (obviously too well), and whom he treats like a waitress. That’s dark stuff too, yet it’s also funny and it comes out of character. But then they shave Alan’s head in Bangkok and he starts to look like Vincent D‘Onofrio in Full Metal Jacket. Too much edge, I‘m afraid. And way too much Bangkok.

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So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
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~ David Simon