The Hangover Part III opens on an elegant slow-motion shot of some guards running urgently, to the strains of classical music, through the corridors of a Thai prison. They make their way to a gate beyond which we see, still in slow motion, an elaborate, cataclysmic riot already in full progress. Amid the total chaos, they make their way to the cell of goofball Chinese gangster Leslie Chow (Ken Jeong) and discover that he has fled, Shawshank Redemption–style. Purely on the surface, it’s a beautifully put-together scene — aestheticized and shot with uncommon cinematic grace. And right there is pretty much everything that’s wrong with The Hangover Part III.
Allow me to explain. The plot of this third installment in the guys'-night-out-gone-wrong franchise goes like this: Our heroes from the earlier films — alpha male horndog Phil (Bradley Cooper, who doesn’t really look like he wants to be here), straight-laced trouble magnet Stu (Ed Helms), and perpetual afterthought Doug (Justin Bartha) have to get the tubby, emotionally stunted black sheep Alan (Zach Galifianakis, looking healthier than usual) to a facility where he’s going to presumably get treatment for the fact that he lives at home and acts like a 12-year-old. To convince him to go, the three friends agree to make the drive with Alan. Along the way, they’re attacked and accosted by drug kingpin Marshall (John Goodman). Turns out the recently escaped Chow once made off with Marshall’s gold. No one can find him, but Marshall is convinced our heroes, and particularly Alan, who is still friends with Chow, can. So, he holds Doug hostage and threatens to kill him unless Phil, Stu, and Alan locate Chow and return him, and the gold, to Marshall. So off the Wolfpack goes to Vegas to try to track their man down.
Are you laughing yet?? No?? Let’s leave to one side the fact that The Hangover Part III inexplicably chooses to make Chow the focus of its story — Jeong is a terrific actor, but his character was always the weakest part of this franchise, the main point of his appearance in the first entry being its utter randomness. The film seems to relish the fact that it’s not trying particularly hard to be funny. There are set pieces galore here — a debauched penthouse party, an attempt to rappel down the side of Caesar’s Palace using a rope fashioned out of bedsheets, and a limo chasing a parasailing fugitive through the streets of Vegas. There are even some mildly chuckle-worthy moments during these set pieces — as when Alan gets stuck between the E and S in the Caesar’s Palace sign. But director Todd Phillips seems more interested in staging the action than in mining any genuine humor from it.
This is nothing short of a tragedy, at least for those of us who like the Hangover movies. One of Phillips’s great strengths as a filmmaker has always been the fact that he eschews the point-and-shoot style of most comedy directors today. There’s an old-fashioned smoothness and power to his images, which is why in many ways the first Hangover, with its noir-ish, mystery-plot structure, worked so well. Phillips brought to his comedy formal signifiers from other genres, like slow-motion and tracking shots and bird’s-eye points of view. It’s a self-conscious way of directing, to be sure, but it’s not gratuitous: The stylized depiction of Vegas early in The Hangover matched the jacked-up, sexed-up ambitions of the characters; while the nocturnal, otherworldly quality of the film enhanced their terrifying uncertainty. So that you weren’t just waiting for the next gag, you were genuinely sucked into the plot. (Okay, at least some of us were. I’ll admit that not everybody’s as keen on The Hangover as I was.) But this time, the director’s grandiosity gets the better of him. The Hangover Part III amps up the style and the action, but it forgets the jokes.
It truly is surprising how barren the movie is of humor. There’s one funny exchange early on that relates to Stu’s sexual travails in the second Hangover film; later, there are some bits involving Melissa McCarthy as a pawn-shop owner who sparks some chemistry with Alan. And that’s about it. Indeed, the film’s unfunniness may be the joke. Consider some of the advertising for the film, with posters showing Ed Helms carrying a seemingly lifeless Jeong with the words “It all ends here.” “Wouldn’t it be funny,” you imagine the writers and the director asking, “if we went totally genre and forgot about the comedy altogether?” So, this Hangover actually has a body count; as in, people die in this movie. “But that IS the joke!!” you can hear the filmmakers insisting. “But it’s not funny!” you want to yell back.
Actually, I lied when I said those aforementioned gags were the only jokes. There is one very funny bit, and it comes courtesy of the end credits' stinger, which has our characters waking up, Hangover 1 and 2-style, from yet another debauched party with something clearly amiss. But ironically, coming this late in the game, the moment feels like a slap in the face. It’s a taunting reminder of the movie we might have had, instead of this turgid, unfunny catastrophe.