The Hangover feels like a franchise created by a studio rather than a storyteller. The original film was a huge sleeper hit, and Warner Bros. wanted to chase that high. We get sequels because audiences presumably want more, and the assumption was that we wanted to see more of Phil (Bradley Cooper), Stu (Ed Helms), and Alan (Zach Galifianakis), a.k.a. “The Wolfpack”. The Hangover Part II gave audiences more of the same to the point where it felt like a remake rather than a sequel. Once again, the filmmakers have responded not by really buckling down on a good story, but reacting to the response towards the previous movie. This time we would get an original story—a Hangover without the hangover. But The Hangover Part III is a case of being careful what you wish for, and even though sequels are supposed to provide more, Part III somehow gives us less. The chemistry between the Wolfpack is diminished, the pacing is lethargic, and the humor is sporadic. The only thing Part III gives us more of is Leslie Chow (Ken Jeong) in an attempt to personify the insanity of the previous plots, but who only serves to distract from what should be the franchise’s last hurrah.
Rather than working with the Wolfpack as a whole, the story puts the focus on Chow and Alan. Alan has been off his meds for six months, he’s becoming more unstable, and Doug (Justin Bartha) thinks it’s would be best if his brother-in-law spent a little time in an institution. Bringing along Stu and Phil on the way to the facility, the friends are ambushed by Marshall (John Goodman) and his gang of thugs. Marshall has come after the Wolfpack because Chow stole $21 million in gold, and Alan has been in contact with the unhinged criminal. Marshall holds Doug ransom, and gives the Wolfpack three days to capture and deliver Chow. When the gang encounters Leslie, they’re only drawn in deeper, and Alan is forced to slightly mature because that’s what the script requires despite his constantly childish antics.
In The Hangover, the characters retrace the steps of their wild night. Similarly, director Todd Phillips and screenwriter Craig Mazin have made two attempts to recapture the glory of the original film. Even though the plot is walking a new path, the calculations are still there. The story focuses on Alan because he was the most popular character from the first movie. And audiences must love Chow far more than I expected since Phillips and Mazin choose to put the character front-and-center, and let Stu and Phil recede into the background. In an attempt to answer the criticisms directed at The Hangover Part II, Phillips and Mazin have still missed the mark. The complaints weren’t about the chemistry between the three lead characters. The complaints were about copying the plot. Part III ends up throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
We’re left to wonder if these characters can work if they’re no longer in the framework of the original movie. The “Wolfpack” moniker really is appropriate since there’s no single protagonist. We see Stu, Phil, and Alan get punished in equal measure, and the chemistry comes alive through their shared ordeal. But if you shake it up, then the repercussions throw the story out of balance. By putting the emphasis on Alan, we see Phil and Stu as nothing more than a jerk and a coward, respectively. They’ve always had these shallow traits, but they worked in the past because of their situation. The further you pull the characters away from the central action, the more uninteresting they become.
The original flame only begins to flicker once the gang goes back to basics and Chow is off their backs. They’re a team that’s woefully out of their depth, and when Phil tries to repel down a floor from the top of Caesar’s Palace, it has the same level of comic threat as trying to move a car that contains a tiger. Phil, Alan, and Stu may not be directly at fault for their circumstances, but it’s still funny watching them trying to deal with the situation. There are laughs throughout the movie, but they’re far less frequent because the new plot doesn’t have the frenetic pace of the original. Part III is far more methodical in pushing from scene to scene, and making the characters dance to Chow’s beat. He’s the driving force, and so the film rests on a character who works best in small doses. Galifianakis and Jeong deliver some great jokes (Galifianakis has one of my favorite lines of the year), but the scenes lack the flair we came to expect from the first movie. Ironically, since this is billed as the conclusion of the trilogy, the one scene that best evokes the spirit of the original comes during the credits.
Sometimes, individual elements come together in an unexpected way, and the result is something special. Recreating that formula can be difficult, and the last two Hangover movies have been trying to find the mix that made the original such a success. Part II thought it was the plot, and Part III thinks it’s Alan and Chow. But sometimes you simply can’t brew up that concoction again. It was something raw, vivacious, and spontaneous. I seriously doubt anyone expected The Hangover to be one of the biggest hits of 2009. The Hangover Part III shows there’s no recapturing the magic of the original. At best, we can only look back fondly at that unforgettable forgotten night.