THE HANGOVER PART II has been almost universally panned by critics (only 35% on RottenTomatoes at the moment), the most-noted reason being that it is a soulless carbon copy of the first one. And it’s true, the sequel follows the original formula almost beat-for-beat: This time, Stu (Ed Helms) is the one getting married, and the gang gathers in Thailand for the wedding. They go down to the beach for one celebratory beer... only to wake up the next morning in a dilapidated Bangkok hotel, fucked up beyond recognition, with no memory of how they got there. Using whatever clues they can find, they retrace their steps to figure out what the hell happened and track down their missing companion, encountering all manner of insanity along the way. Familiar territory, sure, but what most naysayers can’t seem to grasp is that this is not an act of soullessness or laziness or lack of creativity on director/co-writer Todd Phillips’ part -- it is clearly by design, playing with the incredulous notion that these guys could manage to get themselves involved in the exact same situation again, despite the fact that they are well aware of what happened last time and consciously try to avoid such a debacle (for instance, Stu, now ultra-paranoid and scarred for life after Vegas, won’t drink anything unless it is sealed to avoid being roofied). The first time around, shit happened and it was crazy... but this time, it feels like some kind of nightmarish déjà vu. That setup is hilarious in its own right.
And really, it’s not an EXACT carbon copy. One of the things that made the first HANGOVER so great was the element of surprise, but now that advantage is gone because we pretty much expect the worst. So the only thing they could do was go completely bat-shit insane and try to surpass even our most depraved expectations. Vegas is a city of sin & vice, dangerous if things get out of control, but mostly just fun -- but Bangkok is more sinful, more dangerous and definitely more bizarre. The basic formula may be intact, but the events are MUCH crazier, raunchier, dirtier, sweatier, darker and, at times, downright disturbing. We're treated to shenanigans involving a missing finger, a monkey, a creepy tattoo artist, a wheelchair-bound monk, Thai hookers, Paul Giamatti, everybody’s favorite crazy Asian stereotype (Mr. Chow, bitches!), guns, drugs, and more penises than meet the eye. It’s a wild scene. Laughs are plentiful, but there were also plenty of instances where I found myself cringing in revulsion and/or disbelief -- a plus in my book.
The trifecta of Helms, Bradley Cooper and Zack Galifianakis have settled into their roles nicely and their chemistry really helps elevate the material -- when a joke or sequence is good, it’s REALLY good, and when it misfires, it doesn’t take long to regain its footing. Groom-to-be Stu is now battling the demons that the Vegas trip introduced and lives in a state of fear and repression. Phil (Cooper) is pretty much the same guy -- cool, confident and desperately seeking a good time to escape the drudgery of family life. Alan (Galifianakis) is even more of a loose cannon this time -- pretty much a complete sociopath whose throwaway quips and mannerisms and little bits of insanity may require several viewings to fully absorb. One thing that surprised me during my Friday night screening was the crowd reaction -- cheering the title cards and the first appearances of the characters and etc.... it was a STAR WARS-esque level of audience love. May not be too much of a stretch to suggest that, as far as slapstick comedy trios are concerned, the Wolf Pack has become this generation’s Three Stooges.
The first HANGOVER is a modern classic that found its way into my Top 10 of 2009 -- a perfect storm of comedic brilliance that could never be fully recaptured. THE HANGOVER PART II is not as good or as consistently awesome... but it is still pretty damn funny and hits all the right marks. Hell, I wouldn’t even mind seeing these crazy bastards come back for a third installment, following the same formula one last time. I guess it would have to involve Alan’s wedding... perhaps set in Eastern Europe for some HOSTEL-like craziness? Or maybe the jungles of Africa. Or the dark side of the Moon. Wherever the Wolf Pack ends up next, I, for one, will be happy to follow -- they’re the three best friends that anybody could have!