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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In Snowden, Joseph Gordon-Levitt seems to absorb the spirit of the whistleblower

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard. It is reassuring that a film in which people are spied can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable.

Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning 2014 documentary Citizenfour captured the precise moment at which Edward Snowden turned whistleblower after quitting his job at the NSA. Is there room for another film on the same subject? Oliver Stone’s fictionalised account, Snowden, would suggest not. In effect, it admits defeat from the get-go by using the making of Citizenfour as a framing device, incorporating flashbacks to show what led Snowden to commit the security breach that exposed the extent of US government surveillance. Cooped up in a Hong Kong hotel room with him as he spills the beans are Poitras (Melissa Leo) and the Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), who put on their best ­listening faces and try to forget that all of the most interesting scenes are happening in other parts of the film.

What Snowden has in its favour is an economical performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt which is mysterious without being aloof, cool but never cold. The actor gets the voice right (it’s a benign rumble) and though he is physically dissimilar to the real Snowden, that need be no barrier to success: look at Anthony Hopkins in Stone’s Nixon. Gordon-Levitt is absorbed by the role like water vanishing into a sponge. When the real Snowden pops up to stare wistfully off into the distance (there’s a lot of that here), it can’t help but be a let-down. People are so bad at playing themselves, don’t you find?

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard, and it is reassuring that a film in which people are spied on through the webcams of dormant laptops can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable. The script, written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald, pulls in the opposite direction, allowing every character to deliver a remark of nudging innuendo. When Snowden is discharged from the army after injuring himself, a doctor tells him: “There are plenty of other ways to serve your country.” When he is approved for a job at the CIA, Snowden tells his employer: “You won’t regret this.” What we have here, give or take the strip club scene in which a pole dancer is filmed from an ungallantly low angle, is a more sober Stone than the one who made JFK and Natural Born Killers but he still can’t resist giving us a few deafening blasts of the old irony klaxon.

Though we know by now not to expect subtlety, Stone’s storytelling techniques are still surprisingly crude. When Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), complains that he has become distant, that he doesn’t touch her any more, the viewer is likely to wonder why that point had to be expressed in soap-opera dialogue rather than, say, action or camera angles. After all, the film was more than happy to throw in a superfluous sex scene when their love life was hunky-dory.

But when Stone does make his points visually, the cringe factor is even higher. He used carnivorous imagery in Nixon – a bloody steak stood in for murder – and the new film doesn’t take the vegetarian option either. Snowden is already starting to be alarmed by surveillance tactics when he goes hunting with his boss, Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans). The pheasants they kill are barbecued in sizzling close-up, providing a buffet of symbolism. Snowden is going to be grilled. His goose is cooked. He’s dead meat.

An early scene showing him establishing contact with Poitras and Greenwald by an exchange of coded phrases (“What time does the restaurant open?” “Noon. But the food is a little spicy”) suggests that Stone intends to have fun with the story’s espionage trappings. The movie falls between two stools, however, lacking either the irreverence of satire or the tautness of a well-tooled thriller. At its most effective moments, it floats free of irony and captures a quaint, tactile innocence. We see Snowden communicating in sign language with an NSA colleague to avoid being eavesdropped on, or sitting in bed with a blanket over him as he taps away at his laptop. He is only hiding his passwords but he looks for all the world like a kid reading comics by torchlight after his mother has said: “Lights out.”

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 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump