Review by Ryan Wilson

Last weekend The Hangover Part II shattered all existing box office records for highest grossing comedies. This isn’t surprising given the success of the first Hangover, the most successful rated-R comedy of all time.

Given these numbers, it’s intriguing to speculate as to why the films are so popular. Do these movies reflect more about our current culture than the players involved? If so, do we simply yearn to see the consequences of our own depravity? Is it amusing just so long as it’s not actually happening to us? Is there something sadistic about the entire Hangover experience?

Personally, I wasn’t the biggest fan of the first Hangover. When it opened in 2009, it just looked like a raunchier update of Tom Hank’s Bachelor Party. I also didn’t laugh as much as I ought to have when I first saw it, but I will admit that portions of the movie stuck with me long after I’d watched it, particularly Zach Galifianakis’ song about being best friends. Sometimes his song will still hit me at odd times, like when I’m doing something serious, like the taxes, and I’ll feel a bit lighter.

Maybe that’s the power of The Hangover phenomenon. The movies aren’t that complicated or even that funny to watch in themselves, but the memory of what you’ve watched will haunt you indefinitely, and so you’ll convince yourself that the movie was a classic. So although the first Hangover was a loose string of random events, the plot’s unusual episodes, such as Mike Tyson’s tiger and Ken Jeong’s antagonist Leslie Chow, feel so surprising that they’re actually inviting in hindsight. This alone makes a sequel problematic. Whereas, the strength of the first movie was its loose-limbed zaniness, the blueprint of a sequel is usually a carbon copy. And you can’t successfully carbon copy the aura of improvisation.

At its core, The Hangover is a frat boy’s revamp, most similar to the road-trip scenes from Animal House. Think about it: Bradley Cooper is the alpha male “Otter” character, Ed Helms the brainy “Hoover,” and Zach Galifianakis is the pathetic “Flounder,” who is never told that “fat, drunk, and stupid is no way to go through life.” They aren’t characters so much as easily identifiable types of men whom we want to strip of dignity. Of course, Cooper, as the superior male, keeps the most self-respect, while Helms and Galifianakis suffer more physical and emotional torment. If the films made pretty boy Bradley Cooper suffer more, they would be truly different.

The problem with the sequel is that we know the characters too well by now. Once around was enough to surprise us. So when the men repeat essentially the same drunken escapades, the party goes flat. This time Helms is getting married in Thailand, which leads to much debauchery in Bangkok (and prepare yourself for many a pun regarding that city’s name). Instead of a stolen tiger we get a dope dealing, chain-smoking monkey (PETA will love him). But the rest is essentially the same. Ken Jeong returns as the crude Chow, and we even get Mike Tyson returning again, as if we didn’t get enough of him the first time. 

Essentially the sequel is identical to the first movie, right down to the toast that kicks off the party, to the weak epiphany that Ed Helms makes at the end. Not that there aren’t a few amusing moments. At a Buddhist Monastery Galifianakis meditates trying to recall the events of the evening. Through this we get to see the world as he does, which is exactly as a boy would view an adventure in a foreign land, full of wild excitement and possibility, but the funny thing is that in his mind Galifianakas is a boy.

I appreciate the honesty in this moment. What is the Galifianakas character but a great big man-child? And that sadly might also describe the majority of American males flocking to the theaters. At its most cynical The Hangover is just a prolonged laugh at the fat kid. Yet at its most optimistic the franchise is unusually accepting of that fat kid, as being a member of the Wolf Pack becomes an honor forged through sharing a terrible experience.

I’m not sure the move can have it both ways. It feels rather mean-spirited to pointedly make a character the butt of the jokes throughout most of the story, only to turn around and accept him near the end. Only a frat-boy would consider this fair. And the film treats Thailand much the same. After repeatedly referencing the horrors that one confronts on the streets of Bangkok, the film wants in the end to celebrate the place and its people, as if it had no memory of what occurred there. Which is fitting, considering the theme of The Hangover Part II: that you can get away with anything, even the same movie. When we complain about sequels, this one should top the list. But when we complain, we shouldn’t forget that we asked for more, hoping to forget what we’d already seen.

Take 5 on Film is a production of Delta College, Quality Public Radio.

© Ryan Wilson, 2011