27 May 2011

WHAT HAPPENS 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.

5/10

18 comments:

Mac Smith said...

ugh. couldnt get past the first paragraph. calling the first film racist homophobic and misogynist is like comparing everyone with whom you disagree politcally to Hitler. stow your uptight morality and political correctness and just review the movie!

Bryan said...

I've only seen the trailer, but... eesh. It looked pretty grim.

Zev Valancy said...

I'd suggest, Mr. Smith, that if someone finds racism, homophobia, and misogyny to be extremely unpleasant, it might affect that person's enjoyment of the film. If a movie is filled with ugliness, and endorses views that the viewer finds objectionable, the it fits the scope of a review quite perfectly.

Meg said...

As I sat down to watch The Hangover, Part II tonight, I didn't really have high expectations. The first film was enjoyable enough on the first go-around, but really, what more could they do with this premise? I was actually rather surprised that after they got through the "I'm going to remind the viewer how terribly unoriginal this is!" yammering, I felt like there was a different movie somewhere beneath the gloss of raunchy misogyny and white, upper middle class fray boy wish fulfilment, there was something much darker. Some of the gritty shots of Bangkok squalor were scathingly uncomfortable when juxtaposed with these three Americans throwing away money on cabs, booze, and drugs like it's going out of style.

In all, Part II is just so much more uncomfortable, in every way, than Part I that I sometimes felt like I was about to see a deconstruction of The Hangover, a film in which the protagonists suffer real world consequences of their actions, in which the reality of a developing nation where "sex tourism" traps women and children in miserable lives isn't just played off as a joke. Where, having behaved so indifferently to the woman he's supposed to love enough to marry, the groom realises that he's been treating his bride-to-be as the cipher that the film treats her as is wrong, because she actually has enough personality to be upset that her fiance embarrassed her in front of her guests and potentially flushed a lot of money down the toilet to go on a bender.

I feel like that film is underneath the layers of privilege and various ugly -isms, but it's buried deep. And I was so naive! So foolish! To think that that was what I would actually end up seeing.

Alas. At least, hopefully, some of these up-and-coming young Asian-American actors featured will get more work because of this film.

Mac Smith said...

zev: except the first movie does none of those things. if you are so easily offended, perhaps you shouldnt watch a comedy about a bachelor party

Zev Valancy said...

I've never seen either of the movies, so I can't say what's in them or not. I just think that the question of whether it is racist, homophobic, misogynistic, etc, is a reasonable one to ask in a review, and something that could easily effect your enjoyment of the movie. You don't have to agree with his conclusions, but bashing the idea of asking the questions is not very nice.

Meg said...

Mac Smith: Having seen both films, I can definitely attest that both of them are, to my eye, have elements of misogyny, racism, and homophobia.

The manner in which Chow is treated has ugly undertones of both anti-Asian and anti-gay stereotypes. The involvement of a Chinese gangster smacks of Yellow Peril, the fear of those creepy, inscrutable Asian people, who knows what they'll do to you! Part II is full of much of the same, with an added dose of homosexual panic.

The films' women are, as Tim said, set pieces, and the women seem to be set pieces in the men's lives. Phil's wife gets all of two lines between both films. Those who get more still aren't given any personality. The most developed woman in two films is still Heather Graham's stripper, whose character was subjected to a very heavy dose of slut-shaming. The Hangover movies treat women much the way that you would treat a piece of furniture -- something necessary but not much worth acknowledging. Maybe this makes me an Apatow-esque shrieking harpy, but even if women are going to play minor roles, it's misogynistic not to give qualities beyond "in love with this man" and "infinitely understanding." In that way, the women in The Hangover are more fantasies than real people, the kind of woman overgrown frat boys wish they could find: beautiful and willing to overlook their flaws and mistakes, but never too demanding.

Of course there are people like Phil, Stu, and Alan out there in the world. I've met enough Phils to certainly know, and there's not a problem with portraying the prejudices and flaws of this certain type of white American male, but the real trouble with these films isn't that. It's that the movies portray this attitude as something that's admirable and desirable. Sure, the characters may be assholes, but they have fun. They are epic. They are real men.

See the problem?

Colin said...

I never liked The Hangover. The few times it did make me laugh I felt vaguely ashamed of myself for. It wasn't so much the racism, the misogyny and the homophobia as it was the incredible douchebagginess of it all--which I guess is just a more colloquial way of saying it was the racism, the misogyny and the homophobia. And that it starred Bradley Cooper.

Oh, and if you don't think The Hangover was racist, misogynistic and homophobic, than you are racist, misogynistic and homophobic.

jerrel said...

I thought the monkey took place of the baby, but the monk took place of the tiger... Fellow hitting monk was Mike Tyson- ish

S.K.E.A.M said...

Completely agree with what Mac said below... get off your high horse, Tim.

kagome654 said...

Mac and S.K.E.A.M,

The (perceived) presence of racism, sexism and homophobia is likely to impact a conscientious viewer's ability to enjoy a film, and since reviews are largely subjective anyway (reflecting the writer's values and experiences) mentioning such things as a negative in a review only makes sense. I am glad that the problematic elements of the first film was mentioned in this review as I had similar concerns while watching the film. If it does not reflect your experiences with the film, well, that's cool, but that doesn't mean there is no place for it in the review.

Sometimes it is fun to turn your brain off while watching a movie, but it is also worthwhile to consider what the film says about our culture, positively and/or negatively. You're free to disagree with any interpretation, but it's asinine to try to shut down conversation entirely by demanding someone who is interested in examining the film from a social standpoint just 'review the film.' That's exactly what they're doing, it simply doesn't match your own expectations of what a review should be. That's not a failing on the reviewer's part.

JD said...

Yeah, Tim. Change your value systems and lower your standards for the sake of man-children everywhere.

Tim said...

Between Zev and Meg, I don't know that I can say any more to explain myself, so thanks to both of you. With the addendum that finding a movie to be in some way objectionable is in no way the same as finding it bad, if there are compensations (let's not forget, I gave The Hangover 8/10 in 2009). The classic example to me is Meet Me in St. Louis, which is almost psychopathically reactionary in spots, but it one of my favorite musicals of all time.

In other words: it was up to the filmmakers to make me not care that their film is racist, misogynist, and homophobic, and they failed to do this.

HAMMER77777 said...

DUDE u gotta relax..im glad it Makes Fun of homos, and all that..Its Funny

Tim said...

To be fair, I have not made it a policy that statements like "I'm glad it makes fun of homos" are inappropriate and unwelcome, so Mr. Hammer77777's comment will stand. But he has goosed me into a new comments policy. Hooray!

Jesse said...

The unfortunate thing about Hammer77777 is that he very much backs up the stereotype that every single person coming to see a movie like The Hangover (or its sequel, as is the case, but really, who can tell the difference at a glance) is either a bro or a frat boy douche.

I remember vividly going to the midnight screening of this film, and everyone in line was of the flat-billed cap wearing, drunken, blitzed-out-of-their-mind variety. The management actually refused to start the film because of all the booze smuggled into the theater, which was met with a chorus of "fuck you"'s and the like. Throughout the movie, such intelligent gems as "it's the Asian dude's dick!" and "dude, fucking faggot" (in reference to the transgender club) echoed throughout the crowded, Axe-smelling room.

Don't get me wrong; I am no prude, and as an avid reader of your blog, seeing enthusiastic articles on trashy Italian horror films leads me to the conclusion that you would agree that debauchery has its place, and can be fun.

But dammit all, Mr. Hammer. Do you really have to speak up and prove that otherwise "okay" films like The Hangover series are marketed toward Neanderthals, who consider them the apex of comedic gold?

Depressing human being, truly and completely.

Jesse said...

Apologies for how clunky that ended up being; it's a bit embarrassing posting it here, when the blog in question is respectably high caliber.

Tim said...

No apologies necessary. Smacking down a caveman isn't about style points.