"Hangover" Series At Most Esoteric With "Part III"

Is “The Hangover Part III” funny? Early reaction has been intensely critical of the film’s alleged lack of comedy and more character-driven narrative. It’s dark, occasionally meditative, and fiercely committed to offending. Much of the picture is incongruous with the airy original, a comedically broad box office juggernaut that ruled multiplexes in the summer of 2009. Its slightly bleaker 2011 follow-up was maligned for following the exact same formula, which obviously signaled the audience’s thirst for something different, right? Not quite.

That Phillips is getting so much flak for moving in the opposite direction of “Part II” speaks to the enduring fickleness of most moviegoers. Humor is subjective, so if “Part III” misses your funny bone, that’s a valid reaction. But for general audiences and critics alike to lambast a filmmaker for experimentation is an awful thing. That the original was so inconsequential and safe by comparison should have little bearing on how its follow-ups are perceived. It’s human nature to compare, but to fault a director for not tailoring a film to your needs is almost inconceivable. Genres are signposts, not prison cells. So even had I not laughed at the film, I would have applauded Phillips’ decision to venture outside the series’ comfort zone.

But I did laugh. A lot. And the choice to give the story some gravity, particularly in relation to Zach Galifianakis’ character, only makes the humor that much more impactful. After a handful of preposterous opening scenes – including the death of a pet giraffe and an oddly serious homage to “The Shawshank Redemption” – Phil (Bradley Cooper), Stu (Ed Helms), and Doug (Justin Bartha) are tasked with taking Alan (Galifiankis) to a rehab facility so he can work through his various issues. However, their trip is soon derailed by a livid drug kingpin, Marshall (John Goodman), who demands that the Wolfpack track down one Leslie Chow (Ken Jeong). Marshall vows to kill Doug if Chow isn’t brought to him within three days.

This leads our heroes on a series of ridiculous escapades, including a Tijuana gold heist, Alan finding romance, and a triumphant return to Las Vegas, where the series promises to end as it began. Several supporting cast members from the original return (Mike Epps, Heather Graham) and Phillips and co-writer Craig Mazin seem to revel in moving these different pieces around in as manic a fashion as possible. Galifiankis steals the show once again, but an extended cameo by Melissa McCarthy makes for two of the picture’s best scenes.

Most of the aforementioned emotional heft comes from shaping Alan into a person rather than a cartoon character, and his encounter with a like-minded 4 year-old is particularly, weirdly charming. Cooper and Helms don’t get much to work with this time around, but their roles are inherently more one-dimensional than someone as deeply unusual as Alan. Jeong gets more screen time here than in the previous two films combined – which, for some, will ruin the experience – but this is his best, most nuanced (yes, Chow has moments of actual nuance here) work in the series. His karaoke performance of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” is played for laughs, but it’s also undeniably sad and adds some previously unseen depth to the character.

Though the following might read like faint praise, “The Hangover Part III” closes out what’s likely the best comedy trilogy of all time, and on a genuinely respectable note. Ardent fans of the original might be disappointed, but ultimately they’re their own worst enemy. If you want to recreate the feeling of watching the original, watch the original. If you’re craving a slightly more bizarre version of the original (that, in a vacuum, might be a better film), watch “Part II.” And if you want a twist on the first two entries, “Part III” will fit the bill nicely.

Some audiences will flinch at certain jokes or the trajectory of the story in general – I was certainly offended multiple times – but Phillips would be wise to pay no mind to most of the dissent. His vision, both on a visual and narrative level, remains as strong as ever – his track record of stellar cinematography continues – and the breaking down of walls between genres should be worn as a badge of honor. There’s a time and a place for the Judd Apatow brand of filthy but ultimately feel-good comedy. And there’s also plenty of space for something as deliciously cynical and indefinable as “The Hangover Part III.”

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Release Date: May 23, 2013
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: Todd Phillips
Screenwriter: Todd Phillips, Craig Mazin
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, Zach Galifianakis, Ken Jeong, Heather Graham, Jeffrey Tambor, Justin Bartha, John Goodman, Sasha Barrese, Gillian Vigman, Jamie Chung
MPAA Rating: R (for pervasive language including sexual references, some violence and drug content, and brief graphic nudity)