Todd Phillips’ ongoing experiment to populate his comedies with increasingly unlikable lead characters – to see if his fratboy fans will follow him down the rabbit hole and continue to wrong-headedly emulate them while jacking energy drinks, listening to Pitbull, and high-fiving – continues with The Hangover Part III. As far as sequels go, this ain’t too bad. It’s about as funny as its predecessors, but it’s worth remembering that just because they’re box office behemoths doesn’t mean they’re anything close to enduring comedy classics. Though the series’ blockbuster success is somewhat befuddling to me, I do get a kick out of watching Phillips – who co-wrote the screenplay with Craig Mazin – make his heroes ever more alienating. A game of ‘decency chicken’ has developed between the director and his audience, and much like the poor chicken that is literally smothered to death in the movie itself, the game is taken to its extremes in this franchise-ender.
Phil (Bradley Cooper), Stu (Ed Helms), and Alan (Zach Galifianakis) are back, and even more aggressively unkind and sociopathic than before. Their “friendship” forged in those bastions of morality, Vegas and Bangkok, and built upon the pillars of mutual distrust, disappointment, and frustration, they’re drawn back together when Alan’s brother Doug (Justin Bartha) goes missing. Again. He’s kidnapped by sweaty crimelord Marshall (John Goodman), and will only be returned if they can locate recent prison escapee Chow (Ken Jeong), who ripped off Marshall to the tune of $21 million. Poor Justin Bartha is literally dragged off screen about twenty minutes in. They keep him in the picture long enough to fool us into thinking that maybe, this time, he’ll be given actual membership to the Wolfpack. If there was video available of Bartha reading the script, you could probably freeze frame the precise moment his heart breaks.
The main trio of actors remain amusing, despite how repugnant their subjects have become. Phillips has a great filmmaking eye, and his flicks are more cinematic than most of their ilk. And I really admire the audacity of his progressively ambitious instalments. Many viewers probably related to the original, having likely once endured a crazy, ‘lost weekend’ of their own. It'll prove harder to giggle and nod with recognition when Phil, Stu, and Alan execute a gold heist. The scope of our protagonists' plight has been supersized to the point of it no longer being relatable to any human being. This is normally a death knell for comedies, but Phillips has no respect for those kinds of rules.
I also appreciate the picture’s rotten core, and the way in which it commits to its characters’ detestable nature. In The Hangover Part II, Stu gravely intoned that there was “a demon” inside of him. Fact is, there are demons in all three of our leads; Alan, in particular. After carelessly causing a freeway pileup and beheading a giraffe (don’t ask), he gives his father (Jeffrey Tambor) a fatal heart attack. Later, he connects with a pawn shop clerk (Melissa McCarthy) by berating her infirmed mother. The majestic chimes that score his "romantic" climax are brilliantly cloying. Still, the crowd I saw this with 'cooed' and 'awwed' when he leaned in to give McCarthy a kiss. The Hangover Part III indeed delivers exactly what it says on the tin; the tin just means different things to different people.
McCarthy’s own Identity Thief from earlier in the year chided the audience by giving her repellent character a sympathetic backstory in the final moments. Dinner for Schmucks – featuring Galifianakis too – is guilty of the same. At least The Hangover Part III makes no apologies for its hatefulness, nor does it ask us to let it off the hook. The movie is just passable, so don’t mistake my argument in its defence as a particularly impassioned one. I do, however, suspect Phillips is trying out on us something a little grander, stranger, more ruthless and somewhat self-destructive than most comedy helmers working today. For that, I can at least say The Hangover trilogy bows out on admirable terms.