The Hangover is one of those films I initially resisted, despite various positive reviews. I skipped it in theaters, and only the insistence of my boss that it was that good got me to add it to my Netflix queue (where, despite suggestions of a wait, I managed to get it pretty quickly.
The good news is that The Hangover 2 convincingly follows up on the first film's promise, every bit as rude and crude, with an even more dagerous edge. But if the premise of the first one turned you off... this one is surely not going to change your mind.
Sold as a fairly brazen filthy paean to the hedonistic misbehavior of randy bachelors, both the Hangover films are, to my mind, not quite that at all. Instead, they're actually caper films, that age old genre where solving a mildly intriguing mystery allows for the unfolding of a complex tale, usually in flashback, to explain How We Got Here and What Really Happened. In these films, the shameless, filthy hedonism is really window dressing to a much sturdier plot device: how do these idiots reconstruct a hazy night of debauchery while coming out of a drunken stupor?
By making the debauchery a series of ever more outrageous reveals (One of them got a tattoo! One of them stole a tiger! One of them married a stripper! They got into a fight with a drug kingpin!), The Hangover actually plays a game of Can You Top This, while stringing the audience along to find out what happened to one hapless victim. In the first film, it was the groom. In this one, it's the bride's brother.
Hangover 2 takes up a couple of years after the first, with the wedding of Stu, the dentist (he married the stripper in the first one, and subsequently broke several of his teeth) to a woman he met after the first failed Bachelor extravaganza (he broke up with his then fiancee at the end of the first). His new bride is Thai, and the wedding is being held at a coastal resort outside Bangkok. And the other guys are along, but there's a promise of "no bachelor party" and no repeat of the first film's antics.
That edict lasts about 20 minutes into the film, when a post rehearsal dinner "just one beer" leaves the film's orginal three protagonists in a filthy motel room in Bangkok, once again facing a bewildering array of messes and that missing brother (who happens to be a teen prodigy, top cellist, and premed at Stanford). Last time, they had a tiger in the suite; this time it's a small monkey.
Also in their Bangkok hotel room is Mr. Chow, the first film's nominal antagonist, who basically tops even the 3 main characters in shameless excess. In this film's first of many out of the blue turns, after telling them he can reconstruct the previous night's events, he takes one hit of cocaine and promptly drops dead (this, I have to say, was just about pitch perfect). Leaving the boys to both dispose of his body, and try to figure out what the heck happened.
From here the film basically takes off on a breathless chase across the crowded streets and less savory alleys of Bangkok, stopping at a tattoo parlor, a Buddhist monastery and a strip club, just to name a few. Along the way they acquire and return a Buddhist monk (to his monastery, natch), they find out the back story of the monkey, and they even return to discover that Mr. Chow is very much alive - and cold, having had his body stuck in an ice machine.
Though it's fair to argue that The Hangover films glorify a kind of ugly male behavior that deserves no celebration, I suspect the real appeal of the films is that they're in on the fact that this behavior is odious, and the lead characters aren't so much heroic as assholes the audience can't entirely dislike. In part, the film makes liberal use of torturing, abusing, and even disfiguring it's main characters (Bradley Cooper's Phil gets shot at one point, Stu gets a face tattoo much like Mike Tyson's), so that their suffering and humiliations are very much the joke.
Indeed, the film's real hero is Zach Galifianakis as Allen, the sad boyman who still lives in his parent's upscale mansion in middle age. Galifianakis is no pretty boy, and he plays Allen as an off-kilter, slightly shambling nerd boy who doesn't quite get the world of grown-ups. As a result, he ambles pleasantly through both films, causing trouble, getting hurt, but not nearly so much as the others. It's the survival of Allen, really, that both films deliver, much to the audience's relief (and if the producers have any brains left, they'll make The Hangover 3 his wedding).
Cooper's pretty-boy asshole performance made the first film, and he remains the second film's emodiment, such as he is, of the cool dude who can handle almost anything (it makes his reaction to getting shot all the more priceless). And Ed Helms does a weird, wonderful job of turning hapless Stu from victim to participant in his humiliations. And, too, Ken Jeong's Mr. Chow, which could easily be dismissed as ugly stereotyping, refuses to fit into any easy label. Justin Bartha, on hand again as the film's first groom, now brother in law to Allen, has little to do, and misses the night's fetivities.
The point, really, is that the combination of solid plotting and well realized, three dimensional characters is what separates The Hangover both 1 and 2, from other, more derivative comedies that mine the same territory. Rather than celebrate hedonism, the films remind us that "wild party nights" are, in fact, kind of sleazy, small, and sad. The film doesn't avoid the results of misbehavior, and doesn't glorify them, so much as say "if you are going to be this kind of jerk... own it." Take your medicine, face your music, live with your tattoo.
Director Todd Phillips continues to give all of this a fresh, gritty feel that revels in excess, but doesn't lose sight of the seedy, tacky edges (the first film really gets Las Vegas in all its sonagles and seediness). Bangkok, in turn, fares better than one might expect - seedy, in places, but also energized and exciting.
It would be easy to suggest that Hangover 2 is more of the same... but the point, I think, is that the first film's premise worked well enough that returning to it yields yet more payoffs. And the wide appeal of the film - the first was a mcuh bigger than expected hit, this one may well match similar expectations - is probably proof, too, that straight white men are funny when they can be seen as ignorant assholes. It's a disservice, of course, to stright men to make such a blanket pronouncement, much the way humor that still finds gay people effemtinate or fat people worthy of ridicule carry a cruel, unkind edge. The Hangover, Parts 1 and 2, are probably a sign that this joke shows no sign of growing old. And not when the results are sick, wrong, and as flat out funny as this film turns out to be.