In its first five minutes, “The Hangover Part III” delivers a sight gag involving a giraffe that’s exactly what people will want from this movie – something extreme and outrageous, a little bit mean and whole lot funny. As in laugh-out-loud funny. As in think-about-it-later-and-you-still-laugh funny. The only problem with “The Hangover Part III” is that that moment is the one and only big laugh in the entire picture.
It’s as if director Todd Phillips and his co-screenwriter Craig Mazin got a bad idea and, instead of shelving it after 10 pages, decided to brazen it out. They have taken what should have been a hysterical comedy – or at least an attempt at one – and have turned it into an unpleasant action drama, albeit one performed in a lighthearted, semi-comic way.
It’s the worst possible blending of genres. Forget the comedy; it’s dead, buried, finished – and yet its sacrifice doesn’t make the drama come alive. “The Hangover Part III” occupies an arid creative space, where everything is too ugly for a laugh and too dumb to be taken seriously.
Drink coffee or take some NoDoz, because 45 minutes after the giraffe gag, you may very well be shifting in your seat just to stay awake.
Some good features remain as a kind of echo. Phillips is an economical director who knows when to cut and what to skip, and Zach Galifianakis is completely abandoned and invested in his role as Alan, a self-centered and mentally skewed 40-year-old man who still lives with his parents. Lingering, there are traces of the spirit and attitude that made “The Hangover” one of the funniest movies of 2009. But the material just isn’t there.
It starts promisingly enough. Alan has gone off the rails, and his friends and family stage an intervention. Actually, even this is a little odd, in that Alan doesn’t have a drug or alcohol problem – he’s just crazy – but that’s OK. Anything to get him on a two-day road trip with his three friends – played by Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms and Justin Bartha – heading to a mental health facility in Arizona.
They’re going to get into trouble. We know this. But what we want is for them to find trouble because they make a mistake, or give in to temptation, or wrongly think something is a great idea that isn’t. We want something that has to do with character, with the consequences of human weakness. Because this is a comedy, at least in name, we expect something that is, oh, you know, funny.
Instead, 15 minutes into the movie – prepare to be amazed – they are run off the road by a truck and taken prisoner by a mobster. The mobster is played by John Goodman, who is directed as if he were in a Scorsese movie. He takes one of them (Bartha) hostage and tells the other three that their friend will be killed unless they kidnap and bring back a rival mobster, Mr. Chow (Ken Jeong). And that is the premise and grounding for the rest of the movie.
Without even seeing the remaining 85 minutes, can you tell why this can’t work? The situation is disturbing. The men stand to gain nothing but must risk their lives just to maintain the status quo. The real contest is between the mobsters, with the protagonists just bystanders in their own movie. Not only should this screenplay never have been filmed, but it never should have been completed. The problems should have been obvious to anyone.
Perhaps Phillips had undue confidence in the ability of his actors to put it over. He certainly leans hard on Ken Jeong as Mr. Chow, making him one of the main characters. Phillips tries to present Mr. Chow as an appalling wacko, someone bizarre enough to be funny, but Phillips also asks us to take Mr. Chow seriously as a dangerous murderer. These goals are in conflict. Imagine, for example, the scary gangster played by George Raft in “Some Like It Hot” being presented as cute, goofy and vulnerable.
What you’d have is a mess – something almost as bad as “The Hangover Part III.”