‘The Hangover Part II’: Hair of a dead dog

May 25, 2011

When it came out in 2009, “The Hangover” quickly established itself – at least for me – as the gold standard for movie comedy, the film against which subsequent movie comedies would be judged.

It was that rare film that managed to be consistently funny from start to finish, without any lulls or slow spots. It was better than “Anchorman” or “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” or “Knocked Up’ or any other film you can name that’s been released in this century.

So it’s not surprising that they would make “The Hangover Part II.” Nor is it a shock that this second bite of the apple doesn’t go down as easily as the first.

Part of it, of course, is that “The Hangover” had the element of surprise on its side. Sure, director Todd Phillips had a track record that included “Road Trip” and “Old School” – but neither of those was as critically acclaimed as “The Hangover.” And Phillips had yet to be recognized as some sort of comedy auteur, perhaps because his resume also includes “Starsky & Hutch” and “School for Scoundrels,” along with last year’s iffy “Due Date.”

Add this year’s “Hangover II” to the debit side of the ledger. This follow-up makes the mistake of most sequels to self-contained stories: It tries to tell the same story again, with slight variations and bigger, louder, raunchier jokes and action. More, as it often does, turns out to be less.

Not that there aren’t a handful of big laughs in “HO2.” It’s just that they’re separated by long gaps of frenzied activity that doesn’t produce laughter. Bigger, broader – but not as funny.

Mitigating the laugh factor further: Two of the film’s funniest reveals have been given away in the commercials – Ed Helms’ Mike Tyson-like face tattoo (now the subject of a copyright lawsuit) and Zach Galifianakis’ shaved head. It’s the comedy equivalent of premature ejaculation.

This time out, dentist Stu (Helms) is the one who’s getting married – to the daughter of a tycoon from Thailand (a Thai-coon?). And his future father-in-law openly refers to Stu as the Thai equivalent of milquetoast.

Stu’s friends Doug (Justin Bartha) and Phil (Bradley Cooper) are on board for the trip to Southeast Asia for the wedding. But Stu has to be talked into inviting Doug’s brother-in-law, Alan (Galifianakis), too; Stu hasn’t forgiven Alan for drugging him on their Vegas trip. And Stu is adamant: No bachelor party.

But the same thing happens again: After a night drinking harmless beers around a campfire on the beach of a lavish Thai resort, Stu, Phil and Alan regain consciousness – in a squalid Bangkok hotel room.

Where are they? How did they get there? And what happened to Stu’s 16-year-old brother-in-law-to-be, who was with them? The missing kid is a premed genius at Stanford who also happens to be a virtuoso cellist – and he’s nowhere to be found. It’s up to Stu to find him or suffer the wrath of his fiancee’s father.

Instead of dashing around the underbelly of Las Vegas, however, they’re in Bangkok. People keep saying, “Bangkok has him now,” referring to the city with the same mixture of awe and dread with which characters referred to the title locale in “Chinatown.” Like – hey, you were screwed the minute you walked in.

The comedy beats include tattoo artists, Russian gangsters, Buddhist monasteries (where a monk beats the crap out of all three of them), and a strip club/brothel (as you’ll recall, the uptight Stu accidentally married a stripper/hooker in the first film). But as Phillips’s idea of slapstick gets progressively more sadistic, his grasp of the humor of any particular scene gets that much more tenuous.

That’s particularly true in the script’s deployment of Galifianakis, the secret weapon of the first film (though, for my money, Helms stole the film from him). Alan’s weirdly nerdy, teen-age girl pop-culture sensibility (he knows all the tour dates on the Jonas Brothers’ schedule) is hammered over and over again in this film, with less and less wit. Galifianakis himself finds the right twist in oddball moments, but he can’t improve obviously weak material.

The law of diminishing returns is the law for a reason. And unfortunately, “The Hangover Part II” can’t operate outside of it for any length of time before the long arm of the law catches up with it.

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