Back in 2009, "The Hangover" became the highest-grossing R-rated comedy ever made. The film was rude and crude and took the concept of political incorrectness to new heights, but it was also smart, character-driven and hysterically funny. It ended up being ranked by many as one of the best movies of the year and should have received at least some Oscar recognition.
It's very hard to remember that as you sit watching "The Hangover Part III," which may stand as the ultimate cautionary tale of the dangers of trying to turn certain successful films into long-running franchises.
What was a brilliant bit of comedy has now been dragged out, stretched and strained to near the breaking point with some very good actors becoming increasingly disengaged from the material and their characters.
With "The Hangover Part II," director/co-writer Todd Phillips was smacked around by critics for essentially doing a lazy remake, mechanically reprising all the rhythms and high notes of the original. So, this time around, the director takes a completely different tact, turning "Hangover" into a caper film involving elaborate robberies, car chases and a rooftop break-in at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas. It's almost as if Phillips has decided that the "Wolfpack" -- Alan (Zach Galifianakis), Phil (Bradley Cooper) and Stu (Ed Helms) -- has morphed into Ocean's Three.
All of the conventions of the earlier films (the hangovers, the flashbacks) have been eliminated in favor of a loopy narrative but, along the way, Phillips has lost all of the sharp humor, keen sense of debauchery and just plain fun that marked the original. There are stabs at gross-out comedy, but even those moments (you've probably seen the giraffe on the freeway bit in the trailers) come off as perfunctory.
The plot, as slim as it is, goes something like this: The effeminate gangster Mr. Chow (the irrepressible Ken Jeong) breaks out of prison in Thailand while the Wolfpack is called to an intervention with man-child Alan, who has gone off his meds and has gone full psychopath rather than just wild-and-crazy guy.
Marshall takes Alan's brother-in-law Doug (Justin Bartha) hostage until the Wolfpackers can retrieve the gold. That leads to a road trip to Tijuana and, eventually and inevitably, back to Las Vegas, where the first film was set.
Perhaps the biggest problem with the film is that it focuses on Alan and the crazed Mr. Chow, both fan favorites but also characters best taken in small doses. Cooper, who has gone on to much bigger roles since the first "Hangover," and Helms are basically there as straight men, which may partly account for how detached the two actors seem throughout the movie.
There is only one scene that really harks back to what "The Hangover" was. That comes toward the end when Melissa McCarthy turns up as a wonderfully vile Las Vegas pawnshop owner and has a moment with Alan that is just priceless. For at least a few minutes, the humor is honest and not forced.
At one point in the film, Alan turns to Mr. Chow and says, "When we get together, bad things happen."
To which Chow replies: "Yeah, it's funny."
Well, actually, Mr. Chow, it was funny -- and it's not anymore.
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'THE HANGOVER PART III'
Rating: R (for language, sexual content, some violence and nudity)
Cast: Bradley Cooper, Zach Galifianakis, Ed Helms and Ken Jeong
Director: Todd Phillips
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes