"It happened again."
Bradley Cooper's Phil, in a bleary stupor, utters that line early in The Hangover Part II, talking by cell phone to the wife of buddy Doug (Justin Bartha), who is back among polite society while Phil and his pals — sans Doug this time — are lost in Bangkok. But those three words make a pretty functional film review as well. If you saw 2007's mega-crass breakout hit The Hangover, you know what the deal is. It happened again.
For this getting-the-band-back-together excursion, the hunk (Bradley Cooper), the dork (Ed Helms' Stu), the freak (Zach Galifianakis' Alan), and the bland extra guy (Justin Bartha) have relocated from Las Vegas to Thailand (or "Thigh-Land" as Alan calls it), this time for the union of dentist Stu and his Thai native fiancée.
Once again, a substance-fueled pre-wedding celebration goes wrong, with Phil, Stu, and Alan waking up — in Bangkok — in a confusingly debauched environment, with no memory of what transpired the night before and one of their party missing — this time Stu's 16-year-old brother-in-law-to-be, Stanford pre-med student Teddy (Mason Lee). And, once again, the trio pieces together clues, retracing their steps from the night before in search of their misplaced comrade.
This time out, many of the best laughs come early on, before we get to Bangkok and the main plot machinery gears up. We see Alan's bedroom back home — "I'm a stay-at-home son," he explains — in which photos from the first film's closing credits share wall space with pro-wrestling posters (Hillbilly Jim!?) and other oddball detritus, making for a richer, more comic triumph of art direction in the vein of the first film's post-cataclysm Vegas hotel room than Part II's Bangkok counterpart.
In relation to the first film, The Hangover Part II is generally more successful when directly referencing it — as the unspeakable act that binds the characters — than when trying to repeat it: In Stu's trouble-avoiding scheme of an IHOP "bachelor's brunch" or in Alan's awkward rehearsal dinner toast: "What I can tell you is that this is not Stu's first marriage. There was a whore in Las Vegas a couple of years ago... ." And the film makes great comic use of music, choices including Kanye West's "Monster," Johnny Cash's "Beast in Me," Curtis Mayfield's "Pusherman," and an acoustic-strummed, Helms-sung rewrite of Billy Joel's "Allentown."
But much of the Bangkok action is (if you can believe it) bigger and louder than in the first foray — with bits involving hermaphrodites, monks, a tattoo artist, a monkey, and a pig carcass — while typically not as funny. The Hangover II is better when it hints (closing-credit snapshots, snatches of cell-phone video) than when it goes all-in for full shock value. And, perhaps unavoidably, in a sequel driven solely by the desire to duplicate the original's box office, it's too repetitive, the recycled structure saddled with lots of "I can't believe this is happening again" talk.
The Hangover series is director Todd Phillips' bolder, more surreal, less good-natured follow-up to his arrested-development fave Old School, with a gaggle of wives and girlfriends who are attractive, uncritically supportive, and mostly voiceless adding to the grown-up-frat-guy wish-fulfillment vibe.
This film wants to make Bangkok as much a character as Vegas was the first time around, exchanging adult Disneyland for a grubbier environment established in atmospheric cityscape opening credits. "Holler! The City of Squalor!" one character asserts, appreciatively, while others spin variations on the phrase "Bangkok has him now, and she'll never let him go."
But as a tribute to ugly Americans run amok, eventually crowing about their triumph over the city, The Hangover II's overseas adventure leaves an unintended aftertaste. Much like the characters in their moment of morning recalibration, viewers may second-guess this pandering, aggressive good time when it's over.
Opening Friday, May 27th