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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Limehouse raises the question of when party loyalty becomes political irresponsibility

Labour's “Gang of Four” are brought to life brilliantly at the Donmar Warehouse.

A star of the Labour Party right wing, exiled from the shadow cabinet for deviating from the dominant orthodoxy, rants about how a decent but weak Labour leader, with an election-losing anti-European, anti-nuclear manifesto, risks letting the prime minister get away with whatever she wants.

Laughter shows that the audience gets what the dramatist Steve Waters is up to. Limehouse takes place on 25 January 1981, when a gentle veteran, Michael Foot, seems to be leading Labour to such sure oblivion at the next election that Dr David Owen has summoned his fellow moderates Shirley Williams, Bill Rodgers and (just back from a stint running Europe) Roy Jenkins to Sunday lunch in his kitchen in east London. This meeting led the “Gang of Four”, as they became known, to make a statement of estrangement from Labour that heralded the creation of the Social Democratic Party.

Waters was inspired by a New Statesman interview in which Rodgers wondered if the left-right divide under Jeremy Corbyn might justify a similar evacuation of the pragmatists now. The debates that the play stages – fidelity to party and national tribes against a fear of political and historical irrelevance – feel hotly topical.

Williams, considering an offer to abandon Labour and teach at Harvard, faced then the dilemma of an Ed Balls or Tristram Hunt now. And Labour members today who fantasise about a new progressive grouping might reflect that, while the SDP briefly seemed a plausible alternative to Thatcherism (winning 7.8 million votes at the 1983 election), the middle-class revolution was squeezed externally by two-party domination and internally by disputes over leadership and direction.

But, for all the parallel relevance, the success of Limehouse ultimately depends on the convincing re-creation of an era and its people. Enjoyable period details include the luxury macaroni cheese to a recipe by Delia Smith that Debbie Owen, Delia’s literary agent, chops and fries on stage to fuel her husband’s discussions with his three wary comrades. Waters also skilfully uses the mechanics of a pre-digital world – having to go out for newspapers, going upstairs to answer a phone – to get one character out of the way to allow others to talk about them.

As a good playwright should, Waters votes for each character in turn. Owen, though teased for vanity and temper, is allowed a long speech that honours his status as one of the most memorable orators in modern British politics. Tom Goodman-Hill samples Owen’s confident baritone without going the whole Rory Bremner.

Playing Jenkins, a man celebrated for both a speech defect and rococo cadences, Roger Allam has no choice but to deliver the voice perfectly, which he does. Waters carefully gives the character an early riff about the “crepuscular greyness” of Brussels, allowing Allam to establish the w-sounds and extravagant adjectives. Actor and playwright also challenge the assumption that for Jenkins both to love fine wine and to advocate social justice was inevitably a contradiction.

Debra Gillett refreshingly avoids the scattiness that caricaturists attribute to Williams, stressing instead her large brain and deep soul, in a portrayal that increases the sense of shame that the Tories should lead Labour 2-0 in the score of female prime ministers. As Rodgers (in Beatles terms, the Ringo of the confab four), Paul Chahidi touchingly suggests a politician who knows that he will always be a bag-man but still agonises over whose luggage to carry.

Unfolding over 100 minutes, Polly Findlay’s production has a lovely rhythm, staging the delayed entrances of Jenkins and Williams for maximum impact. Biodramas about the living or recently dead can be hobbled by a need to negotiate objections of tact or fact. Politicians, however, often purchase even the rudest cartoons of themselves for the loo wall, and the real Owen, Williams and Rodgers laughed warmly during, and strongly applauded after, the first night.

At an impromptu press conference afterwards, a genial and generous Owen astutely observed that what at the time was “a very happy day in our house” has been dramatised as tragicomedy. But, regardless of whether Marx was right about history repeating itself the second time as farce, the possibility that farce is being repeated in Labour Party history has encouraged a compelling play that is sublimely enjoyable but also deeply serious – on the question of when loyalty to party can become disloyalty to political responsibility.

“Limehouse” runs until 15 April

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution