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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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser