The Hangover Part II is either a profound and mournful examination of human nature and the problem of living with sin in a world where redemption is not possible or it is a failed attempt at comedy.
Okay, truth be told The Hangover is probably a film that can’t work with a sequel. The premise is the absurd, perfect-storm of events, so a repeat can only go the ironical, self-aware route (“We did it again,” Phil says on the cellphone, and if they had just queued Brittany Spears at that point instead of Billy Joel I would have given them four stars) if it wants to stay a comedy.
Part II chooses instead to go the route of having the characters shocked and dumbfounded at the extent of what is happening to them. That’s marginally credible, but it isn’t very funny.
There are moments, though, when the film appears to give up on comedy altogether and has the characters, Stu, especially, make a stab at trying to bridge the gulf between their (and our) real world and the world they inhabit for the bulk of such films. These are not sustained, but, then, how could they be, even if it were a serious film? After Stu finds out that he has had intercourse with a she-male (hey, can’t have a comedy these days without some good old fashioned homophobic sex panic, can we?) the day before his wedding, his best friend, Phil (Bradley Cooper) advises him to forget about it. That’s what we do, Phil, opines–and for a moment, the “we” become anagogical rather than particular–we do all sorts of crazy stuff and then we (try to) forget about it. When Stu laments that he has a “demon inside me,” for one, brief, intoxicating second I thought I had been transported to an alternate reality in which Hollywood films meaningfully explored their premises.
What a movie that would be, where characters who have had the experiences of Stu, Phil, and Alan, face the horrific question of how to continue living after they’ve come out alive, where “normal” is not a location to get back to but a(n illusory) state that is shattered by the haunting knowledge of both what one has done and what one is capable of doing. Perhaps it could be written by David Simon (squint real hard and you might see a resemblance between Alan’s situation and Bubbles’ in The Wire) or directed by Terence Malick or Paul Thomas Anderson.
The film reminds one of a touring pop band that has played the same setlist in each locale for the past week. Occasionally sparks of energy will remind you of how great particular songs were the first time you heard them, but mostly they provide just enough contrast to make you realize the band is going through the motions, just enough hope that they will break out of it and experiment or improvise, and that much more disappointed when they fall back into autopilot.
Nibbling around the edges of the experience are ideas, though. In threads that go nowhere (such as Alan’s alleged trauma at the beginning of the film) and emotions that ooze out even when they have no real objective correlative (such as the sadness of monkeys that can’t Skype) are a film that Todd Phillips either wanted to make and couldn’t or tried to make and couldn’t quite pull off.
The moment where I actually fooled myself into thinking the film might actually have something to say about what it would be like to be the people these things happened to evaporated like dew in a June morning. We were back to jokes about monkeys giving monks fellatio and how being wasted makes us do really hilarious stuff like cutting off our own fingers. I will have forgotten the names and most of the plot of The Hangover Part II in time to go to Part III whenever it comes out, but I’ll remember the sadness for awhile. And when I sleep tonight, I suspect I may dream of a Hangover Part II/Tree of Life mashup.