Be careful what you wish for. After the second – and deeply unfunny – Hangover copied the hysterical original beat for beat, disgruntled fans demanded something new for the third one. Now that, too, has been revealed as a hollow sham: the franchise has nothing left to offer. Clearly it never did, built upon a very funny presence that simply lacks anywhere to grow. The filmmakers return the same elements here, then sit back and assume the magic will appear. How else can one explain Heather Graham’s pointless cameo, or Mike Epps’ throwaway drug dealer suddenly becoming a central fulcrum to the plot? There’s no more magic to be mined here. They used it all up on the first one.
The original Hangover balanced its humor with real darkness: threats of truly awful things lurking in the shadows of its romp. This third entry embraces the darkness full-throttle, but without any accompanying humor to make it worthwhile. I laughed maybe twice during the entire running time – once for the post-credits cookie – and that’s the only barometer that truly matters for films like this. The darkness conceals a streak of anger we haven’t seen before in this series… or at least it hasn’t been applied so cruelly. This appears most readily in Zach Gallifianakis’s Alan, who used to be a sweet oddball but is reborn here as an active menace. His Asperger’s kicks in in a serious way, which kills his father (Jeffrey Tambor) and prompts the need for an intervention. Alan gets to take a trip to a retreat in Arizona. Naturally, his “buddies” Phil (Bradley Cooper) and Stu (Ed Helms) get to drive him, and naturally, they run into all kinds of mayhem courtesy of Mr. Chow (Ken Jeong), who busted out of a Thai prison and heads towards them with trouble on his mind.
Alan spends most of the film verbally berating Stu and flinging barbed comments at anyone within earshot. The first few are more shocking than funny, and then the joke gets cold, leaving nothing but plain-old playground meanness in its wake. (That comes on top of a similarly hateful opening gag involving a giraffe and a freeway overpass that sets the whole plot in motion.) We see none of the self-deflating wit or flashes of aching sympathy that make such material so potent. Instead, it feels like a dim-witted child pulling the wings off of flies: amusing to the perpetrator alone.
Even without that bleakness, The Hangover III walks a rough road. The central gag is that there’s no hangover here; these guys are in full control of the facilities all the time. That removes one of the franchise’s main foundations – that they more or less deserve what happens to them. The screenwriters don’t use any such motivator here, leaving the character more or less innocent (all save Alan, who avoids the brunt of the pain) as all manner of horrific things happen to them. That’s a lot less funny, even if the jokes possessed a modicum of the cleverness that we expect.
Except, frankly, they’re not all that horrific. Just trite and dull and uninspired. At times, The Hangover III feels like a straight thriller, though even then we couldn’t forgive such a woeful lack of energy. Director Todd Phillips struggles to register even the faintest pulse, while the main characters now stand as the unabashedly two-dimensional stereotypes they always were. That worked in the original film because the actors were funny and we could imprint something of ourselves onto their visage. This one removes that possibility and brings nothing to act as a replacement.
We’re left with the sad tatters of the original concept, a concept that just wasn’t built for the long haul. Warners has demanded further entries because most folks were suckered into the second film. By now, the jig is up, and nothing here suggests they want to exit with a flourish. Lacking a decent concept, a coherent direction or even a sense of humor, it simply wanders from one half-assed concept to another: the tail end of a good idea that was stretched well beyond its breaking point.