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Entries in Hangover Part 3/The [2013] (1)

Tuesday
May282013

The Hangover Part 3 (2013)

Deus Ex Zachina

Shut up and put your money where your mouth is. That's what you get for waking up in Vegas.

--Katy Perry

The Hangover Part 3 is probably the weakest entry, comedy-wise, in the Trilogy That Was Never Meant To Be, but it's also the perfect capper to Todd Phillips' meta-commentary on lousy Hollywood blockbusters. In my review of the second movie, I posited that Phillips and co-writers Craig Mazin and Scot Armstrong had used their guarantee of a huge opening-weekend audience to explore truly deranged territory while also serving up an ostensibly Xeroxed copy of the original. In this third and final chapter, the filmmakers burn the entire franchise to the ground, all but guaranteeing there will be no such thing as a Hangover fan by the end of its theatrical run.

Gentlemen, I salute you.

Phillips and company have taken these characters and premise to their logical conclusions--not comedically, but realistically. It's a bold choice because at this stage of the game, no one involved in these shenanigans has escaped the events of the first two films without severe physical and psychological damage. And these were incomplete, assholes to begin with, meaning that four years and several humiliating adventures on, they have devolved into tired, disaffected, mostly selfish people. To that end, it's wholly fitting that The Hangover Part 3 isn't really a comedy: it's a bleak, sloppy heist movie that sees our goofy heroes desperately struggling to be rid of each other--and ultimately realizing they're bonded for life in a hellish nightmare designed to be laughed at by an invisible audience.

Let's back up. The story kicks off with rich, socially awkward man-child Alan (Zach Galifianakis) losing his father to a heart attack. He's been off his medication for months, and the outlandish behavior, rudeness, and cluelessness with which he assaults the world have metastasized into something his few friends and family can no longer abide. During an intervention, Alan's brother-in-law Doug, (Justin Bartha), and cohorts Stu (Ed Helms) and Phil (Bradley Cooper), reluctantly offer to drive Alan to rehab.

Not far into their trip, the gang is run off the road by a gangster named Marshall (John Goodman), who mistakenly believes them to be friends with the previous films' lunatic antagonist, Mr. Chow (Ken Jeong). Chow stole millions of dollars in gold bars from Marshall, who gives the guys three days to hand over the man and the money; he kidnaps Doug for collateral.

Unlike the other movies, The Hangover Part 3 doesn't rely on drug-induced amnesia to get its characters into trouble. Alan, Stu, and Phil have enough problems tracking down Chow, including breaking into a fortified mansion to steal back Marshall's gold, and scaling Caesars Palace in Las Vegas during a climax whose circumstances I won't spoil. In their own weird way, the guys embark on a Fellowship-type journey, where both the villain and the prize are a perverted, lispy Gollum.

When I realized Jeong was going to be the central figure in this movie, my heart sank. Mr. Chow has been the weakest part of the franchise, beginning as a sight-gag in part one, and devolving into a truly degrading caricature in part two. But in keeping with Phillips and Mazin's master plan, Chow is fleshed out into a real character here, with results both touching and excruciating to watch. That's what happens, I guess, when writers opens up a cartoon character to see what's inside.

Audiences fell in arm's-length love with Chow in the original Hangover because he was a kooky Asian stereotype of questionable sexuality that gave the douche-y frat boys among them something gross and alien to point and laugh at. In this film, the writers make us understand that Chow is a real person (or a substitute for one, anyway) with recognizable motivations and emotions. Don't worry, this isn't a gooey Dr. Phil screenplay: the downside of drawing fully formed characters is that sometimes they turn out to be monsters. Chow's sadness comes out in this story, but so does his viciousness, and in defeating him, Phil, Alan, and Stu finally put their bizarre crises (and, indeed, their distended childhoods) behind them.

Alan's journey is reflected in Chow's, and while Galifianakis' career was made by this quirky character, I was really glad to see some signs of maturity in the character and the performer. Alan has always bothered me. His latent pedophilia is a series running gag, and a real challenge to my sense of humor. The jokes themselves are funny, but the underlying message is not. So when, in part three, Alan jumps at the chance to spend ten minutes in a blanket fort with a four-year-old, I got really queasy. Luckily, this scene is a breakthrough for him, and helps change our perception of his brain: all the long, awkward stares and jokes about The Jonas Brothers are extensions of his wanting to be like little kids, not to be with them (it's a dramatization of Michael Jackson's cover story, only far more convincing).

Stu and Phil take a back seat here, as they learned their lessons in the other films. Stu isn't as whiny as before, having gained a modicum of self-confidence, and Phil isn't the same show-boating jerk who once called his friend by screaming, "Paging Dr. Faggot" in front of his house. In this low-rent Mission: Impossible-rip-off of a plot, Phil is Ethan Hunt, getting down to business to get the job done--except his job doesn't involve disarming bombs or foiling terrorist plots; he's stuck navigating a strobe-lit hotel penthouse where the bodies coming at him could either be nude escorts or a coked-out, pistol-waving Chow. 

As I said before, this isn't really a comedy. It's more of a dark men-on-a-mission picture that has a lot of weirdness and black humor running through it. Some have compared this to a bad version of Ocean's Eleven, but I think a lot of that has to do with the climax's Vegas setting and a dearth of imagination in modern film criticism.

Plus, it discounts just how thrilling the Caesars Palace scene is. When Phil and Alan attempt to scale the side of the building using knotted bed sheets, of course their plan goes wrong. But Phillips and DP Lawrence Sher turn familiar hijinks into truly dizzying spectacle. Even if the infrequent humor turns you off, I'm willing to bet you'll be surprised (and even entertained) by some of the film's more ambitious set pieces.

This may be a stretch, but I'm gonna put it out there: Todd Phillips is this generation's Andy Kaufman, seated in a director's chair. Kaufman's performance philosophy was centered on turning audience expectations of what constitutes "comedy" on its head. He challenged conventional sitcom and stand-up humor by providing what he saw as equally dumb entertainment (such as lip-synching the Mighty Mouse theme song) and turning himself into an obnoxious comedy construct.

Similarly, Phillips and Mazin have taken the wildly popular characters from Jon Moore and Scott Lucas's original script and asked the audience to reconsider the entertainment value of humiliation humor. Initially, The Hangover's characters embodied narcissism, spinelessness, and grossly enabled arrested development. I'm willing to bet that Phillips knew how massive the sequel's audience would be and, in serving up a familiar story with really uncomfortable levels of shame, echoed Maximus's indignant question, "Are you not entertained?!"

The marketing for part three includes posters and theatre-lobby displays that parody pop-cultural iconography, such as the ad for the last Harry Potter film and the famous comic-book cover for Crisis on Infinite Earths. This is pure speculation based on the results, but it seems Phillips and Warner Brothers really are trying to say something to and about the Hangover audience, and it's not at all flattering.

Or maybe it is. I love the idea that summer doesn't have to be an excuse to turn out dumb, broad content, and that perhaps people who pay good money to be entertained should have the right to expect something other than an assembly-line product no more distinctive than their last two McDonald's cheeseburgers.

Personally, I can't wait to see what Phillips will do next. Even if The Hangover Part 3 fails (and all signs point to this being the least successful of the trilogy), I'm sure he'll remerge in the next couple years with a movie as equally challenging, weird, and darkly fun--one that I fully expect to enjoy, beginning to end, in the privacy of an empty theatre.