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The Sad, Desperate Cruelty of ‘The Hangover Part III’

The best thing that can be said about The Hangover Part III is that it isn’t the beat-for-beat, scene-for-scene duplication of the original film that we got in The Hangover Part II, a film less sequel than mirthless remake. Not that co-writer/director Todd Phillips will admit to that film’s miserable artistic failure: “I think it’s human nature that any time people want to try something for a second time, people go to a negative,” he told Empire recently. “I think in five or ten years time, people will come to realize how brilliant Hangover II is… My feeling is that it’s the better movie of the two.” (Surely irrelevant side note: Mr. Phillips has a screenplay credit on the second film, but not the first.) But in that same interview, he explained how much darker the franchise was going this time around. “People die in this movie,” he bragged. “Nobody’s died in them before.” Wow, so edgy.

People do die in Hangover Part III, but that’s not what people have been scratching their heads over — it’s how many animals Phillips dispatches, for comedy. There’s the big opening sequence (set up in the trailers), in which a giraffe is gruesomely decapitated on a highway. (It would be horrifying if the animal itself weren’t such a bad CG job.) There’s a thoroughly unnerving scene where Mr. Chow (Ken Jeong) smothers a rooster, slowly and carefully, for no apparent reason. By the time we’re told that Chow has also snapped a pair of dogs’ necks for fun, the whole thing has gotten a little bit preposterous. What exactly is Phillips trying to prove here?

“Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t know you work for PETA!” Chow says, when Stu (Ed Helms) voices an objection. “What a pussy!” That’s delivered as a laugh line, so I guess it’s a joke (most of the movie’s gags provoke that response), but it’s from the film’s villain, so whatever. But one of our protagonists feels the same way: “I thought it was pretty funny!” says Stu (Bradley Cooper) of the giraffe beheading. “C’mon, he killed a giraffe! Who gives a fuck?” Indeed. Todd Phillips and his characters will not be bound by your political correctness, hippies!

There’s always been a little bit of darkness to the Hangover pictures, from the foreboding Vegas photography and Danzig music of the first film’s opening forward. But in that inaugural outing, the grisly undertones were firmly in the background; it was, first and foremost, a buddy comedy, and one where all parties had something to contribute, from Cooper’s scuzzy, overgrown bro to Helms’s deeply manic introvert to the gonzo energy of Zach Galifiankis.

That balance is, by this point in the series, all off; it’s now Galifiankis and his two straight men, both of whom are plainly present this time because they were contractually obligated to be. The two-year intervals between these films don’t exactly speak to care and attentiveness at at the writing stage; both sequels play as though they were written over a weekend, with a vague intention of going back and adding in some jokes later. As a result, scene after scene sits there listlessly, relying less on comic ingenuity than on the established, and by now tired, personas of its stars. (Jeong is particularly overused, his one-joke character long past its expiration date.) The first film actually had a clever construction and a reasonably tight plot; entire scenes here don’t make any sense. And then, insult of insults, they try to get touchy-feely at the end, as though we have any goodwill left towards these people. There’s a deep, unfortunate sadness to the entire endeavor, which kinda torpedoes that whole “comedy” thing.

The Hangover Part III’s animal cruelty streak might be worrisome or troubling in any other mainstream comedy. But it’s not here — it’s such tired schtick, such a nakedly calculated play to be “controversial,” for an increasingly irrelevant filmmaker to get attention. He used to do so by making funny movies. But that’s apparently a skill that’s eluding him these days (either that, or making funny movies requires more effort than he’s willing to exert). So, instead, he’s “going dark,” like an ignored teenage boy gothing up with an all-black wardrobe and a few wayward, half-hearted cuts. They call this kind of thing “a cry for help” when the teenager does it; when a rich Hollywood blowhard indulges, it’s just kind of sad.

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