I called my mom. She asked what I was up to lately. I told her I had gone to see The Hangover Part II with my friends tonight. The groan she let out in response was almost inhuman. It was sincere and from the gut. Disappointment in my poor taste had possessed her entire being. “Oh,” she scoffed, and I shivered, so world-encompassing was her derision.
“Boy, you like the idea that much?” I retorted. “Mmhmm,” she managed to reply, as (I assume) she was preparing her negative response to people who asked in the future if I was her son. Now, understand, my mother has very… “arty” taste in movies. The more indie and obscure, the more dramatic and tortured, the more she relishes the prospect. I love her for it, I do, it adds to her charm, but it can make movie nights kind of… depressing, like looking at a painting or sculpture that makes you cry for reasons you don’t understand. There’s a lot of indigestible ennui.
So we don’t agree completely on our film philosophies, that’s cool, and I would totally chalk this negative pop-culture feedback up to my mom’s different taste in movies and let it slide, except for the fact that pretty much every film critic in America has had the same reaction as my mother. Actually, I think that the entire film intelligentsia let out, at the exact moment this film was released (really since the moment this sequel was announced [really, truly, since the moment the last film ended two years ago, and everyone realized that a sequel was inevitable]), a collective inhuman groan that, if you listen really closely and put your ear to the ground, you can probably still hear echoing depressingly about. This frustrates me, and so I’m about to take an indefensible pop culture position I didn’t think I’d ever be taking, and hope I manage to stand my ground.
First, the inarguable facts: The Hangover Part II is very much a carbon copy of the first very succesful film. Many of the same things happen to the same wolfpack in a different city. The ante is upped somewhat, and so the emotional payoff at the end of the film is a bit stronger. Zach Galifianakis is a very, very funny man.
The film, in four days has made $118.1 million. By tomorrow, it is expected to rake in (according to EW) $137.6 million. That will be, by a long-shot, the best opening ever for a live-action comedy. For perspective’s sake, there have been a lot of live-action comedies produced in the history of cinema. More people rushed out for this film then for any film before it (though, with inflation, I’m probably missing some really old comedy that could be adjusted up and prove this assumption to be very incorrect).
The majority of critics hate this. They hate this film, they hate what it stands for, and they strongly dislike that so many people have gone out and given it a stamp of approval by backing it with their cash. Tomorrow, expect an expansive array of diatribes lamenting the state of a moviegoing public that laps up manipulative, mind-numbing sequels which are poisoning the film industry.
The public likes this movie. No one is claiming it is the greatest movie ever, or even that it surpasses the original’s flair, but I would guess that most people feel that two more hours with these guys — this wolfpack — are two hours well-spent, and that Todd Phillips’s comedy is way better, way funnier, and way more joyful than most of the truly bad comedies, sequel or non-sequel, we get spoon-fed these days.
Normally, I would come down on the side of the critics. I would read the truly horrible reviews this film is getting, buy them at face value, and discourage my friends from putting their money down on a product that the cinema connoisseurs I respect have uniformly pooh-poohed as not worth anyone’s time. Like my mother, I would groan at anyone who told me they had gone, not because I hate laughter, or even because I disliked the first movie (I loved it about eighty times more than I thought I ever possibly could, which was part of that surprise factor that made everyone dig it so much); I would have done it because nine out of ten tastemakers say that The Hangover Part II is another shot, and a particularly effective and destructive one, in the war sequels seem to be waging on our sacred cineplexes. It offers nothing of value, they say. It only adds fuel to the fire sequels are setting to the integrity of our country’s esteemed cinema tradition. Like a good sheep, I would normally nod along and try to put out the fire by ignoring this film as hard as I possibly could, scoffing whenever someone deigned to mention the pretty flames soaring behind my upturned nose.
Yeah, that was the old me. New Me got invited to see this film, hesitated for a second, and then said, “To hell with it, in Zack I trust!” Zach didn’t betray my trust, but I feel like the critics did this time. It’s become passe at this point in entertainment circles to say that “this year’s film slate” (the year being any year for like the last decade) looks like the worst slate ever because x amount of films are sequels and *shudder* y amount are threequels, four…quels, and beyond. It’s so cliché that pretty much every Summer Movie Preview these days begins like so:
“It has become extremely passe to say that sequels and remakes are ruining the film industry and destroying our summers. That being said, this summer, sequels and remakes really are doing those bad things!!!”
Like reports of a debilitating springtime famine that never comes, diatribes against the summer movie slate build up this bile against a complacent, menacing Hollywood that, by year’s end, always seems to be recognized as, well, somewhat overblown and kind of silly. Come Oscar time, we all realize how much in film we had to be thankful for, how entertaining some of the remakes, sequels and adaptations turned out to be, and how harmless the truly execrable films (whether a sequel or not) proved to be to our overall heath. Maybe there was a lack of originality, but their was plenty of entertainment, and when the two, originality and entertainment, combined, some truly great films were produced, films to pass down for the ages. We are happy! All that in February, just in time to start hating the film industry again in March!
I’m not knowledgeable enough in popular culture, or in film, to truly criticize the bad reviews as endemic of this mob mentality (“Boo sequels! Get pitchforks!”) and defend a good one, and there are some out there, as truly valuing the film as a film, a text, and not a money-grub. The reviews of this movie are wide-ranging and tackle a lot, and there are definitely things to pick on in this film. That being said, I do have one problem with an almost universal credo held against this film, and I’m going to try to highlight what that is.
I enjoyed the film just fine, though I could see how someone who doesn’t like what The Hangover is selling could pan the film. It’s a divisive film by its very nature. Not everyone likes this much raunch, this much boyish giggling at yucky things, and this much Galiafinakis. I get that completely! That is totally my mother, and a lot of other totally cool people! The problem is, almost no one panning this film (apart from my mother) disliked the first film! They loved the first film, but hated this film because it is the first film, but again. Many claim that this one has all the plot strands of the first film stuck together like pre-fabricated puzzle pieces, but none of the quality. I don’t buy that. No, this is not a bad movie at all. It is the exact same good movie as the one that came before it. Same deft writing. Same great dialogue. Same performances (some even better performed the second time around). Some better jokes, some that didn’t land at all, just like in numero uno. The exact same dopey pacing as the first film (dull beginning, hilarious descent into madness, kind of funny return to sanity, and then a shock-to-the-system slide show during the end credits). No, in my opinion, this film improves on a lot of what the original film was just trying on for size, and it does so by daring to do the exact same thing again.
Aha! This is the crime that truly sits under The Hangover Part II’s mugshot. It is, sneer it with me now, unoriginal! The original film was good because it was surprisingly innovative, a breath of fresh air, a shock to the system. The original film was, hello, original. By replaying that initial moment of shock for us again, the filmmakers have ruined the illusion, because we’re not surprised anymore. But this misses the point! (It also misses one of the great things about this film: We may not be surprised this is happening again, but the characters are completely, deliriously surprised that they find themselves up this same creek again with no paddle in sight, because they tried to prevent it! It is one of the great delights of this movie, watching them wonder how they could have steered down this road a second time, and it makes Stu’s final revelation all the more appealing. He realizes the man who keeps doing this is who he is, and, the second time, lets it define him rather than trying to define it.)
Comedy is only partly about surprise. Good comedy is not necessarily daringly original comedy. For our laughs, we have never demanded whiz-bang innovation. We have only demanded that something be funny. Sometimes, what is familiar is most funny because it is well-honed, like a note you have played so many times that it is, at last, perfectly in tune.
Comedy is, deep down, all about a peculiarity of timing and a miracle of chemistry that comes together and overrides whatever plot contrivance has tried to define its edges. That is what made The Hangover sing. It was refreshing that the original film skipped the party, yes. It was a neat trick. But it was just a trick, a plot twist that gave the film’s three stars a chance to show us what they had in their comedy tanks in the situation that truly suited them best: the aftermath. Ed Helms, Bradley Cooper, Zach Galiafinakis, and a baby; together they won us over by being so utterly destroyed, distraught, and man-handled by the aftermath of what they could not remember. These bozos were trying to gain control in a world in which they had none, and a rush of joy came at the end of the film when, suddenly, it was given back to them and they were liberated from their nightmare. They were the ideal group of men to torture with hooker-marriages, lost Holocaust rings and tigers, because they all looked the part of lost puppies so well… together. Their’s was a peculiarity of timing and a miracle of chemistry that jumped out at you. Every double-take from Cooper, every whine from Helms, every disastrous inkling from Galiafinakis had you rolling in the aisles. You couldn’t breathe, these guys were so funny on-screen together. They elevated the man-boy sensibility that has pervaded Hollywood for about two decades now to a level where it now has a discernible comedy team. As Owen Gleiberman points out, this new century has its Three Stooges.
A scheming straight-man, a put-upon schlemiel, and a demonic trouble-maker disguised as a teddy bear, all trying to save face and reclaim their manhood. We could watch this for ages, playing out in a similar fashion with similar results and slightly different jokes, and, in fact, we have been watching this for ages. The Marx Brothers, the Stooges, Abbott and Costello, Lucille Ball (in her case fighting for respect for womankind), Peter Sellers, the Mel Brooks gang, Rowan Atkinson, Pinky and Brain: every one of these comedy entities had a routine, a schtick, and they played it over and over and over again, episode after episode, short after short, film after film, to our delight. They changed it up, of course: today an opera house, tomorrow a haunted house, today the bookstore, tomorrow the beach, today Westerns, tomorrow horror films. What it all boiled down to was chemistry, timing, and a carefully honed dedication to acting the fool no matter the situation. That’s the definition of a comedy routine. It is, of course, routine. It has a familiar pattern, an expected rhythm. What you do within the confines you set up, that’s where you make comedy gold!
No one ever called another Three Stooges short a sequel, even if they were the same three guys, doing the same thing they were doing last week. They’d get in trouble, find a reason to hit each other, and solve their dilemma – over and over again. Let me ask you a question, then. Would you advise someone to see the first recorded Three Stooges short, because it was the first time they shared their brilliance with us? Or the first episode of I Love Lucy? Or the first Mr. Bean sketch? Because it was “original”? Because it surprised us the first time? No, you wouldn’t. You would advise someone to see the best Three Stooges film, or Lucy episode, or Bean sketch, no matter when it happened to come out. Part of me wishes that the anti-sequel machine hadn’t soured us to this sort of “routine” in our mainstream comedy. Of course some comedy sequels are horrible! Yes, most of them are! But not because they are sequels. It’s because they dumb down what the original did. Or the new concept ruins the concept of the original. The sequel I saw tonight committed neither of these crimes. As a matter of fact, it planted a flag on a castle of its own making, and made me realize I would see these guys get horribly lost and confused anywhere as long as they continue sharing the absurdly good timing and chemistry they have as a team.
This comedy team (Phil, Stu, and Alan) has now put out two interpretations of what is now it’s proven routine: three man-boys, drugs, then confusion. It works. It works very well if the laughter in the theater (and the gasps) were any indication. It will work again. And again. I would still advise anyone exploring the young and still budding oeuvre of this team to look to their first adventure, The Hangover, to see their antics in top form, but I would absolutely advise a trip with these men to Thailand. (A metaphorical one! Under no circumstance would I actually recommend a trip with these guys to Thailand!) And, in truth, for all I know, their seventh adventure (to the moon, or Atlantis, or a haunted manor, or wherever) will be the one we remember most sixty years down the line when we think back to the Hangover guys as a comedy team of note – not because of where they went, or because what they did was “new,” but because that was when the three of them made us laugh the most.