The Hangover Part III: a franchise in its death throes

Another installment of the second-unfunniest comedy franchise in town.

The Hangover Part III (15)
dir: Todd Phillips

It’s impossible to pinpoint the precise moment when the movie sequel became degraded (Jaws 2? Superman III? Rocky IV?). A strong contender must be the release in 1982 of Trail of the Pink Panther, stitched together from out-takes of its star, Peter Sellers, who had died two years earlier. The atmosphere in the cinema where I saw it was so maudlin it would have been fitting if the concessions counter had laid out funeral meats instead of popcorn for the duration of its run.

None of the main participants of The Hangover Part III died before the film was in the can but it’s difficult to imagine that a grisly on-set fatality could have cast more of a pall over the experience of watching it. This is a franchise in its death throes – unless you happen to be a Warner Bros executive, that is, in which case it must resemble a chorus line of dollar signs high-kicking across the screen. There’s not even a hangover in The Hangover Part III, at least not until the final seconds, but it would take more than a detail such as that to impede the progress of a series that has grossed over $1bn to date.

With its then unknown cast and conspicuous lack of special effects, The Hangover was a surprise hit in 2009. It took off from the idea of a night of bacchanalian excess so severe that it was impossible for the protagonists to know how they came to find themselves the next morning in a wrecked Las Vegas hotel suite with a tiger in the bathroom and a baby in the wardrobe. The film touched on various genres –buddy movie, road movie, gross-out comedy, even action thriller – but its chief pleasure came from the gradual piecing together in flashback of the events that led to such a spectacle; if you were feeling generous, you might liken it to a frathouse Memento.

Even viewers resistant to the laddish larks of this series (guilty as charged) might still respond to the actor playing the reckless child-man Alan. Zach Galifianakis, a rampaging baby with a Brian Blessed beard, possesses a combination of mania and naivety that evokes the essence, if not the daredevil spark, of John Belushi. The childlike obliviousness he brings to the chaos Alan causes is amusing even when the situations (which include, in the new film, the accidental decapitation of a giraffe) manifestly are not. Alan’s faith in his propriety is as unshakable as it is deluded.

The first Hangover sequel used the popular tactic of dispatching the cast to a foreign country (Thailand, in that case) for some comedy xenophobia (see also: Sex and the City 2, Bridget Jones: the Edge of Reason). The Hangover Part III begins with Alan’s friends pledging to check him into rehab. Alan is touched that he will be accompanied on the journey by his pals – the uptight Stu (Ed Helms) and the slick, handsome Phil (Bradley Cooper).

“You’re coming, too, Phil?” exclaims Alan gratefully. We are as surprised as he is. After all, Cooper has progressed to great things since handcuffing himself to the Hangover films four years ago. He’s a dramatic performer now, with an Oscar nomination (for Silver Linings Playbook) and a genuinely sophisticated performance (in The Place Beyond the Pines) to his name. At best, Cooper’s participation here has “contractual obligation” stamped all over it. I imagine his co-stars huddling around him between takes for stories of what it’s like out there as a real actor, where they give you awards and flattery rather than drunkenly yelling your catchphrases at you when you’re sitting with your family at TGI Friday’s.        

The friends never make it as far as rehab. They are sidelined by a gangster (John Goodman) demanding that they track down their old criminal acquaintance Chow (Ken Jeong), who has stolen from him millions of dollars’ worth of gold bullion. Alan may be the capricious toddler of the Wolfpack, as the friends style themselves, but Chow out-ids him by some margin. Chemically frazzled and polymorphously perverse, Chow has a special fondness for men, which renders him a transgressive presence in a film that sees boundless merriment in the sight of Alan stroking Phil’s face or Stu dressed in lingerie.

It’s an odd thing about comedy that pretty much anything can be justified if it’s funny. None of the snickering at gay sex or the romanticising of prostitution or the general misanthropy of The Hangover Part III would register harshly if there were three or four distinctive laughs or a handful of scenes that felt written rather than muddled through. Some series achieve a level of success so incommensurate with quality that their very existence feels like an indictment of audiences. The Scary Movie spoofs (five abysmal films and counting) are the current frontrunners in that regard but the makers of the Hangover movies shouldn’t see any glory in being responsible for the second-unfunniest comedy franchise in town.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 27 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, You were the future once

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The Evolution of Beauty reveals the true power of sexual attraction

Richard O Prum's book mimics the literary output of Charles Darwin.

In 1860, the year after Charles Darwin had published his On the Origin of Species, he privately confessed to a colleague: ‘‘The sight of a feather in a peacock’s tail, when­ever I gaze at it, makes me feel sick!’’ It doesn’t take a genius to work out the cause of Darwin’s nausea.

Natural selection, as he had defined it, was assumed to modify the physical structure and function of a species’ composite parts, so that they were all adjusted to their environmental conditions.

Overall, it was presumed to shape an animal to make it better adapted to its life circumstances.

But how on Earth could such a theory explain something as gloriously impractical as the five-foot-long, eye-spotted upper-tail coverts of a male peacock? Far from leaving the owner skilled at negotiating its environment or better at escaping predators, this ­ludicrous appendage appeared to make it less able to survive. The peacock’s tail seemed the most beautiful and elegant rebuttal of Darwin’s arguments.

At least it did until, according to the author of this remarkable book, Darwin came up with the answer. It was an insight every bit as world-defining as his original theory and he described it in a later book, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871). Darwin argued that another evolutionary force was at play among life in the way that organisms select their prospective partners. Natural selection may lead to the survival of the fittest, but sexual selection, as we now call this other mechanism, does not necessarily make a species better adapted.

Mate choices based on aesthetic criteria, of which the peacock’s tail is a perfect example, can give rise to arbitrary, even maladaptive characteristics. And not only does ­sexual selection lead to the acquisition of such useless adornments, it also has a co-evolutionary impact on the desires expressed by the male peacock’s mate. In short, what helps shape life on Earth is the subjective feelings that operate largely within female organisms.

According to Prum, this is Darwin’s truly ‘‘dangerous idea’’, and one that patriarchal Western scientific culture has instinctively disliked. Prum explores in detail the antag­onisms that sexual selection has aroused over the 150 years since Darwin articulated the idea. While natural scientists from Alfred Russel Wallace to Richard Dawkins may have accepted its existence, they have also sought to collapse its significance and make it a subsidiary element within the general theory of natural selection.

They argue that mate choices may lead to beautiful and bizarre adornments but that these features are also ‘‘honest’’ indicators of the good genes and vigorous health possessed by their male owners.

Prum calls it the ‘‘beauty-as-utility argument’’ and characterises it as a majority view, one to which he has been a lifelong opponent. In The Evolution of Beauty he provides a detailed justification for his position, making his book both an objective description of how sexual selection operates and a form of scientific autobiography.

It also mimics Darwin’s literary output in two crucial senses. Like his great hero did, it has taken Prum decades to assemble the hoard of supportive evidence that underpins his views. He has also articulated his life’s work in prose that is as lucid as the arguments are sophisticated: Darwin couldn’t have put it better himself.

The author is a lifelong birdwatcher and many of his favourite organisms feature strongly in the array of case studies that make up a good deal of the book. But the bird family that launched Prum’s scientific journey is a group of tiny, intensely colourful Neotropical inhabitants called manakins. The males of the group perform a bizarre display that has evolved under a severe form of sexual selection that Prum ­describes as 54 ‘‘distinctive ‘ideals’ of beauty’’.

One of the better-known of these birds is the red-capped manakin, which performs a dance routine said to resemble Michael Jackson’s moonwalk. Another, the blue manakin, often functioning in collaborative teams of up to seven males, does a Catherine-wheel-like flutter past the dowdy female.

In their relatively long lives, as many as 90 per cent of male blue manakins may never get to mate. As Prum points out, these birds ‘‘engage in the most ruthless sexual competition known in nature’’, but it is not a violent transaction conducted with teeth and horns. Appropriately for one of ­Brazil’s best-known birds, it involves a song-and-dance number, of which the super-picky females are the ultimate arbiters.

What makes this book so absorbing is that Prum expands the range of his material to speculate on a panorama of intriguing questions. To give a small sense of this eclectic span, he proposes that sexual selection could have played a very important part in shaping feathers in dinosaurs and in the evolution of flight by their avian descendants, and that it may even have led to the Old Testament story of how God made Adam’s partner from a spare rib. According to Prum, the real bone used to fashion Eve may have been a baculum, a penis bone, which is found in all primates except two – spider monkeys and ourselves.

Prum devotes the last third of his book to considering how mate choices may have been decisive in shaping aspects of human physiology and behaviour. This is likely to provoke much of the attention that the book rightly deserves, because here he dwells on the size and shape of the human penis, the existence of the female orgasm and the evolution of same-sex sexual relationships, all of which are hard to explain through natural selection alone.

Prum’s thoughts on these matters are compelling stuff, but the book’s chief achievement is to challenge our relentlessly anthropocentric perspective. The Evolution of Beauty enables us to see that the most intimate emotions and subjective choices made by mere beasts are decisive subjects for science. And it is these aesthetic sens­ibilities, as owned and operated by other animals, that have fashioned the manifold beauties of our world.

Mark Cocker’s new book, “Our Place”, will be published in 2018 by Jonathan Cape

The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World – and Us
Richard O Prum
Doubleday, 448pp, $30​

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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