What happens in Vegas does not stay in Vegas
When The Hangover opened in 2009, a lot of people - including myself - were a great deal gentler with it than it deserved. I cannot speak for anyone else, but in my particular case, it was a matter of sheer, untrammeled joy that there was a comedy that was actually funny, and moreover a comedy that was made with a fairly high level of cinematic craftsmanship, that led me to simply not care that the film was by turns misogynistic, racist, homophobic, and praised a faintly ugly form of American masculinity.
Now here we are with The Hangover, Part II, which is in all essentials the same movie, and in this case, it's a great deal harder to overlook those things. There are at least a couple of reasons for this: firstly, where The Hangover had the benefit of being the first funny American comedy in months and months, Part II has the horrible misfortune to come out two whole weeks after Bridesmaids, a movie that matches the Hangovers in crudeness, tops them both for funniness, and does it all without even once sacrificing its humanity. (The proof, to me, lies in comparing two moments: in Hangover II, one character loudly says "cunt" in a crowded restaurant, and the joke is that the word is shocking; it also kind of makes the character seem like a sexist dick. In Bridesmaids, the protagonist, losing an argument with a teenage girl, hisses "cunt" at her: it's still shocking, but also surprising and witty, as well as a character moment, and we leave the scene not liking her any less for it).
The other, bigger reason is that Part II, isn't nearly as fresh and novel as The Hangover was two years ago, largely because Part II feels like the exact same movie in almost every respect, as if co-writers Todd Phillips & Craig Mazin & Scot Armstrong just took Jon Lucas & Scott Moore's original screenplay and did a find and replace to exchange Bangkok for Las Vegas, a Thai-American teenager for a missing bridegroom, and a drug-dealing, cigarette-smoking monkey for both the tiger and the baby in the first movie.
There are a lot of other cosmetic changes, but the core of the thing is identical: in the beginning, Phil (Bradley Cooper) calls a wedding party to sadly intone that the wedding is off, because of something dreadful having happened; then we flash back a few days to find that Phil's friend Stu (Ed Helms) is getting married in Thailand to the girl he met shortly after Phil and Stu formed two-quarters of a miserably dysfunctional bachelor party weekend in Vegas. At the insistence of other friend Doug (Justin Bartha), Stu reluctantly invites bearlike man-child Alan (Zach Galifianakis) to join in the wedding, but fails to entirely explain that there will be other people there, including Stu's 16-year-old genius future brother-in-law Teddy (Mason Lee), thereby triggering a wave of resentment in Alan that results, in short order, in a long night of drinking and druggy excess that leaves Phil, Stu, and Alan groggy in a hotel room, missing Teddy, and wondering how the hell things got to this point. So begins another post-debauch mystery, with every major character getting at least one chance to moan, "I can't believe this is happening again!" or some variation thereof, just so that the audience knows for sure that the filmmakers are aware of how shockingly unimaginative they're being.
Now, the flipside to this is that, since Part II is basically The Hangover Redux, it almost has no choice but to be funny (or not-funny, depending upon your tastes) in much the same manner as the original film; and this I found to be the case, vaguely. The things that worked best about the first movie still work: the chemistry between Helms, Cooper, and Galifianakis being chief among them; while the things that were worst have become even more grating, by which I am chiefly thinking of the ungodly sight of Ken Jeong as Leslie Chow, the mincing, flailing Asian crime lord, whose presence in this film is easily the most contrived single element in making sure the structure of the new film matches the old one as closely as possible. In the middle, everything else is about the same, only less so: the bracing crudeness of the original has become a bit more crude and a bit less bracing, presumably because it's now just another part of the formula: the penis jokes are less funny mostly because of the sudden ubiquity of floppy flaccid penises in R-rated comedies in the last few years. The expected she-male prostitute subplot is somehow too tastefully done to be as funny as it feels like it ought to be, though it's happily not so gay-panicky as it also feels like it ought to be.
Really, the biggest single difference, and it's not to the new film's credit, is the recasting of Alan's personality; perhaps the most amusing character in the original Hangover, he's somehow infinitely more aggressive in his anti-social naïveté, a monsterously self-regarding creature whose antics cut rather more towards upsetting and cruel than towards charming and clueless. Maybe it's Galifianakis fatigue, and maybe it's the common comedy sequel mistake of adding emphasis to whatever was most characteristic in the first movie, and thus making it a caricature of itself (see also: Sparrow, Jack).
But all in all, I would be lying if I said I did not laugh, though I did not do so very often or very deeply; and it is still the case, if nothing else, that Phillips's direction is far more accomplished and appealing than pretty much any other gross-out comedy director now working. Some of the shots he and cinematographer Lawrence Sher set up are quite handsome, in fact, and the manner in which the film presents the grottiest images of Bangkok it can possibly muster, and then wraps it in a sleek, just-slightly-contrasty visual aesthetic, lends a certain tension to the visuals that should be self-defeating, and yet somehow, it's rather striking. Now, it is the case that the director manages to fumble pacing and comic timing a little - the film feels more than its 102 minutes, and some of the gags hit us with the punchline a bit too hard, and the ending spins wildly out of control in its cutesiness. I do not mean to defend The Hangover, Part II up to the point where I try to call it some kind of great, or even good movie. For it is unquestionably the fact that it remains smugly overprivileged like the original, without the appealing distractions that made the original so palatable to so many people. It is not, however, as overt about these things: there are no shrieking harpy women, only impersonal set-dressing women for example. In fact, the problems with this sequel are much like the jokes: basically the same, but significantly lessened. Let us take what progressive developments as we may.