There was a time, and this time now seems very long ago, when The Hangover was a near-cultural phenomenon. It became (for a while) the highest-grossing R-rated comedy ever, it made Bradley Cooper a star, and it proved the movie industry could find a place for oddball comic Zach Galifianakis. That was four years and, as it turns out, two disappointing sequels ago. The hope going into The Hangover Part III was that co-writer and director Todd Phillips would make amends for the universally disliked The Hangover Part II. That dream is neither denied nor fulfilled. Instead, we get another unnecessary sequel that's amusing in the way that many crass bro-comedies are amusing, which is to say sporadically and barely.
As Phil (Bradley Cooper), Stu (Ed Helms), and Alan (Zach Galifianakis) head to Tijuana and then back to Las Vegas for one (presumably, hopefully) final adventure, we realize that the strengths of the 2009 original were its unique structure, its hard-R humor and the out-of-nowhere emergence of Galifianakis. Without those elements, there's really nothing to hang a sequel on, let alone two sequels.
And yet, here comes the Wolfpack again, freaking out anew in a vain attempt to recapture the spirit of the original. So as Phil, Stu, Alan, and Doug (Justin Bartha) stride, The Right Stuff-like, into the sunset, let us compare the Hangover series to an actual hangover: it was a blast initially, but now we're paying for it in a most unpleasant fashion.
The Hangover Part III's Ken Jeong: 'Hilariously shameless'
If The Hangover Part II was a lazy, note-for-note rehash of the original, The Hangover Part III is lazy in an entirely different way. God forbid Todd Phillips and co-writer Craig Mazin find a clever conceit to match the 2009 version, instead of just piling the boys into Phil's minivan to embark on a standard road trip.
As evidence, if not proof, that Phillips was unable to find anything interesting to do with these characters, he places a disproportionately large comedic burden on Mr. Chow, a supporting player in the previous two The Hangover movies. Chow is, as before, played by the hilariously shameless Ken Jeong. Profane, shrill, unrepentant and gleefully evil, Chow is The Hangover Part III's raging comedic wildcard.
Otherwise, the bickering of three distinct personality types that was so bracingly funny in the original now has the autopilot feel of actors under the assumption that simply by sharing the frame they're being funny. This is clearly not the case, especially with Bradley Cooper, who has little to do except be flabbergasted that all this is happening, something a 2012 Best Actor Oscar nomination somehow makes less funny.
As for Ed Helms, he was always the neglected middle child of the bunch. Stu is the most predictable in how he reacts to whatever situation he finds himself in. And while this veteran of NBC's The Office can sell a pained expression with sweat-glistened panache, his oversized rendition of square, suburban panic has lost its ability to surprise.
Zach Galifianakis: 'Unique, unpredictable, and innately intelligent' comedy acting
This leaves Zach Galifianakis, of which too much praise cannot be given. There are few performers in contemporary American film comedy as unique, unpredictable, and innately intelligent. (Melissa McCarthy, who appears briefly here as a pawn shop dealer, is another.) Depending on the moment, Galifianakis layers Alan's cluelessness with sarcasm, hurt, or obstinacy, consistently finding whatever spin will turn a prosaic line of dialogue (there are plenty in The Hangover Part III) into something worth listening to. Because he's so unpredictable, Alan is the character who has least worn out his welcome, and it's his drug-addled volatility that forces Stu, Phil, and Doug to stage an intervention and drive him to an Arizona rehab center. On the way, they're ambushed by an angry, villainous blowhard named Marshall (John Goodman), who then regurgitates an enormous amount of backstory and set-up about Chow stealing dozens of gold bricks that belonged to him. Now Marshall wants the Wolfpack to find Chow and return the gold or he'll kill Doug (Justin Bartha).
The Hangover Part III: Todd Phillips' desperate attempts at humor
The ensuing hijinks sometimes scrape the bottom of the monkey barrel. An opening gag involving a giraffe promises lunacy, but when the gang is attacked by vengeful chickens and Chow sniffs Stu's blue-jeaned behind, you know inspiration has turned to desperation. Then again, forcing the humor is not new to Todd Phillips's work. What little of note he has directed (Old School) was the result of smart writers and smart performers either glorifying or satirizing the male id by using traditionally dumb-guy subject matter. Otherwise, his output is just plain dumb.
Admittedly he can be playful with blocking and can put together a scene of comedic intensity, as when Alan tries to climb down the side of Caesar's Palace in Vegas to capture a party-hearty Chow. Phillips cannot, however, make us overlook a bad script. Which brings us back to The Hangover Part III.
The bold humor and clever story structure of the original could never be fully recaptured, but everyone's stubborn lack of interest in even trying is still frustrating. What should have been a no-holds-barred send-off is instead the work of filmmakers acting like they're doing us a favor. What once felt like total anarchy now feels mechanical and tired.
Bradley Cooper, Zach Galifianakis, Ed Helms in The Hangover Part III photo: Warner Bros.
The Hangover Part III (2013). Director: Todd Phillips. Screenplay: Todd Phillips and Craig Mazin. Cast: Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, Zach Galifianakis, Justin Bartha, Ken Jeong, John Goodman, Melissa McCarthy, Jeffrey Tambor, Heather Graham, Mike Epps, Sasha Barrese, Sondra Currie, Jamie Chung.