From front to back, The Hangover Part II is one big calculation. It seems to have run every single aspect of the first movie through a series of algorithms to determine just how much different — and how very, very, similar — the sequel should be to retain a target audience with no patience for new material, no taste for a new adventure and no desire to see a different movie than the one they paid to see in 2009.
Want a new plot that’s exactly the same? No problem. The guys are at Ed Helms’ wedding this time. Looking for a slightly more interesting location than Vegas? Boom, Bangkok. Lost baby not good enough? Now it’s a monkey. Missing tooth too boring? Here’s a face tattoo. Vegas hookers too tame? Try (spoiler alert) transsexual Thai prostitutes. Sure, each of these are marginally more interesting, and the guys being in a foreign country technically raises the stakes, but do those choices make for a proportionally funnier film? Of course not. What’s sadder is that our heros react to these things at the same level: Galifianakis babies the monkey. Helms stresses about the tattoo’s effect on his appearance and credibility. Cooper runs interference with the increasingly suspicious wedding party. It’s bad enough for the plot to be so similar; do the characters have to act the same, too?
What’s worse are the calculations that don’t just make the film the same but rather make it less fun. Zach Galifianakis’ character, Alan, is just too dumb, too broad and too strange to pull off as much screen time as he has, even though he does it very well. And even more so for Ken Jeong, who I didn’t even like in the first film but is a central character in Part II. Sure, Galifianakis is the best part of The Hangover, and Jeong was a favorite for some as well, but give it a rest, guys. Put Alan in the backseat where he belongs where his non-sequiturs and sabotage will be the most potent. Give Jeong a simple cameo and have some faith in yourselves — and your audience — to write a new side character we’ll like just as much.
And for that matter, write a new premise. Sure, the hangover thing is a fun plot, but the relationship between Cooper, Helms and Galifianakis is evergreen, and doesn’t rely on roofies to be active or interesting. Putting those three characters in any situation where tension is high and the three of them need to accomplish some crazy goal, is a film that writes itself. Call me a dreamer, but it could even be the start of a pretty terrific episodic film franchise. So why assume people won’t get on board?
And the movie is sorta pervasively racist, too, right? I mean, I don’t know much about Bangkok, but surely there’s a little bit of a problem with claiming that it’s a city teeming with nothing but murderers, rioters, mobsters, weapon and drug dealers and prostitutes. Maybe that’s actually what it’s like, but it wouldn’t have killed them to provide a little context.
The crazy thing is that in spite of all this, there are actually a few solid laughs — the source material is pretty great, after all. Helms and Galifianakis are genuinely funny guys, of course, and what the new setting lacks in originality it makes up for, with some success, in absurdity and an unsettling strangeness. A tattoo’s not much funnier than a missing tooth, but being stranded in Bangkok provides the guys with a helplessness that’s definitely a step up from the first film.
The few scenes that do break the formula a bit are breaths of fresh air, and naturally become the standouts of the film, such as a flashback from Alan’s perspective where the same events happen but the characters are all 10-year-old versions of themselves, or portions of the last act, which combine some nice action elements, a few great off-game jokes, and some monkey character development. And some of the freshest parts of the film are between set pieces, like the weird cabs and buses they ride around in from place to place, crammed in with a bunch of amiable, uninvolved Thais. This is where you long for a movie that had just put these guys in Bangkok and let the character games do the rest; it’s obvious that these relationships work in any context, and it makes the amnesia/mystery-movie device seem that much more unnecessary.
The device is there, though, and sadly dominates a film that could have succeeded as a true second chapter rather than a rehash. This is an intensely unsurprising film, which for a raunchy R-comedy seems like a pretty clear red flag. The Hangover Part II is exactly what you would expect it to be, and if that’s a good thing, then by all means check it out. It’s not the worst way to spend another couple hours with some solid characters and the great comedians behind them, but the piles of wasted potential almost ruin it.