When a perfectly lovely movie is diminished or marred because some greedy S.O.B. decided to make a sequel or, worse, a trilogy, it can be truly said that this perfectly lovely movie has been DAMNED WITH FAINT SEQUEL! Today, we take a look at The Hangover (sigh) trilogy.
THE ORIGINAL: The Hangover (2009)
PREMISE: Four bros hit Las Vegas for a bachelor party, only to discover the next morning that the prospective groom is missing and none of the other bros can recall anything about the night before. They’re forced to follow an increasingly-weird series of clues, both to piece together the events of the bachelor party and to find their missing friend.
WHY IT WORKED: Well, the previous paragraph tells you why the pitch meeting must have gone pretty well. That said, I’m not convinced that The Hangover looked all that good on paper. The characters come straight out of the Stock Character Playbook: Phil (Bradley Cooper) is the eternal frat boy who never grew up, Stu (Ed Helms) is the frat boy who did and is resented by everyone he knows (including himself), Alan (Zach Galifianakis) is a typical lunatic fringe guy; someone who’s less an actual human being and more a series of unfortunate events and Doug (Justin Bartha) is, I don’t know, Zeppo. Characters aside, there are logical gaps you could fly a Boeing through and the plot is a string of oddball occurrences, only some of which are ever explained. That said, there is an undeniable chemistry among the three leads that lifts them above the script’s threadbare character treatment. The comedy is just outrageous enough to feel edgy, but doesn’t veer into unpleasant territory like, say, Very Bad Things. And Todd Phillips turns action movie tropes sideways to produce a near-perfect parody (although, given what happened with The Hangover, Part 3, I’m starting to wonder if Phillips actually intended to make this a parody.) It’s a fast-paced, funny and likable film that works beautifully if you turn the logic dial down JUST a tad.
WHY THERE WAS A SEQUEL: Well, in strict business terms, the film made a bajillion dollars. And it did so at a time when none of its stars were particularly well known. That’s the sort of thing that’s going to get some studio suit to greenlight a sequel. If there’s an artistic argument to be made, the chemistry between Cooper, Helms and Galifianakis was so strong it left audiences wanting to see more. All they had to do was get around that pesky It Only Really Works for One Film premise.
THE FIRST SEQUEL: The Hangover, Part 2 (2011)
PREMISE: The Wolfpack gathers in Bangkok, Thailand for Stu’s wedding. The night before the wedding, Stu and his bros from the first film (minus Doug, I guess, because f**k Doug) go out for a drink with Stu’s soon-to-be brother-in-law. They wake up the next morning in a strange hotel, minus the aforementioned brother-in-law and, of course, no recollection of the night before. They must run around Bangkok, trying to find the missing brother-in-law and piece together the events of the night before.
WHY IT DIDN’T WORK: Well, read the two premises and there’s your first clue. Phillips and his collaborators didn’t exactly bust their collective ass coming up with a new story. Even by the low-bar standards of a sequel, this is a shockingly lazy rehash. And rerunning the events of the first film removes an element of fun. Having a wild party that results in someone going missing? Well, that’s embarrassing, but really just an anomaly. Having ANOTHER wild party that results in someone going missing? Okay, now you need to think about your life choices and maybe get some help. Sort of like that second DWI. The film, though, isn’t totally without merit. Galifianakis always seems to be doing his own film within the actual film and he’s a lot of fun to watch. Paul Giamatti shows up and that’s always a good thing. In fact, I was willing to give Phillips some credit. The decision to set the film in Thailand smacked of, “Well, there’s no way I can deliver a decent sequel under these constraints, so I’m just going to wheedle a working vacation out of the studio.” But that went out the window when Phillips actively defended the film and even got a bit pissy at suggestions it was a disappointment. Thus, the first sign that maybe he lucked into his success with the first film.
WHY THERE WAS ANOTHER SEQUEL: Again, in strict business terms, the film made a bajillion dollars. In fact, it made MORE money at the box office than the original. (I’m sure there’s an adjusted-for-inflation factor I need to add in, but, like time travel stories, these things give me a headache.) Artistically, this gave Phillips the whoopin’ stick he needed to redeem himself after the disappointing critical response to the sequel. And sadly, he tried.
THE SECOND SEQUEL: The Hangover, Part 3 (2013)
PREMISE: While transporting Alan to a mental institution, the four bros are grabbed by a gangster named Marshall (John Goodman). Marshall gives the bros three days to find the naked-guy-in-the-trunk-turned-international-criminal Leslie Chow (Ken Jeong) and/or reclaim some gold bars Chow stole from Marshall. As incentive, Marshall takes Doug (Justin Bartha) hostage (because, again, f**k Doug.) The search for Chow leads the bros from Arizona to Tijuana to, of course, Las Vegas and brings the whole trilogy to a conclusion.
WHY IT DIDN’T WORK: Apparently, Phillips’ idea of redeeming himself was to place the comedy elements in a commode and flush repeatedly. Everything that made the first Hangover film work is completely absent here. The comedy is ham-handed and stupid (when something DOES make you laugh, it feels more like an accident than a plan,) the characters become progressively less likable and the interplay of the leads is shoved aside in favor of brutal action sequences. Any sense of joy or fun is completely gone. It feels less like an attempt to redeem the series and more like an attempt to give the finger to anybody who enjoyed it in the first place.
WHY THERE WON’T BE A SEQUEL: Well, I guess you never say never. If everyone involved is on the career equivalent of food stamps in ten years, we might get a Hangover 4 (sort of like Chevy Chase doing Vacation films when he needs to pay a mortgage.) But The Hangover, Part III was clearly intended to be the finale to the series. And everyone seems to have moved on. Phillips’ can probably ill-afford another failure after these two sequels. Cooper is now Oscar-nominee Bradley Cooper and doesn’t need to go back to this particular well. Galifianakis and Helms are reliable character actors and aren’t hurting for work, either. And after this joyless mess, I can’t imagine audiences are too particularly anxious to hang with the Wolfpack again.
THE HANGOVER TRILOGY, SEQUEL SINS:
- Self-Seriousness. Weird that The Hangover trilogy and Sam Raimi’s three Spider-Man films would have this in common, but it’s probably the biggest flaw to the series. In the case of The Hangover, portraying the characters as actually scarred from the events of the first film went a long way toward taking the fun out of the sequels. It became less boys-will-be-boys and more how-long-before-these-guys-hit-rock-bottom?
- One Trick Pony. As much as studio executives would love you to believe otherwise, some movies simply don’t lend themselves to sequels. (Some will argue that the Die Hard series is an exception and I’ll present a counter-argument in the future.) Even with a lighter touch, it’s hard to imagine another round of alcohol-fueled Wolfpack adventures not seeming a little pathetic. And there was simply no approach that worked. They tried rehashing the first film. They tried making a totally different one. Neither was successful.
- Accidental Success. Phillips has had enough success in generating bankable comedy films that it’s unfair to question his bonafides in this area. But the series ran so far away from what made the original film work that it’s reasonable to believe Phillips didn’t understand what made The Hangover successful. Or understanding it, had no ability to recreate it.
FINAL VERDICT: A trilogy that should have been one film.