Todd Phillips’ deliberately offensive films have always courted controversy, but The Hangover Part III marks a tonal shift for his successful franchise. The movie is so aggressively nasty and barely funny that it feels as though Phillips is trying to cull his own Wolfpack down to only the most hardcore fans. The tagline on The Hangover Part III’s posters is “The end,” and there may be some wish fulfillment implied. The Hangover Part III gives off such a stench of creative decay that it hardly seems possible that even Phillips or his co-writers have any use for the movie themselves. If a movie can be self-loathing and self-destructive, it’s this one.
Even the impetus behind the journey, which does include a trip back to Las Vegas, the scene of the wickedly fun original, is bleak. Instead of a rollicking bachelor party enhanced by drugs, there’s a funeral, followed by an intervention. Alan (Zach Galifianakis) has been off his meds for six months when the movie begins.
He is enticed to enter a treatment facility in Arizona by a promise that Phil (Bradley Cooper) and the rest of the Wolfpack — Stu (Ed Helms) and the guy who always gets left behind, Alan’s brother-in-law Doug (Justin Bartha) — will drive him there. Of course, the trip to Arizona is derailed — and the purpose of it completely forgotten — by an encounter with a drug-lord-type named Marshall (John Goodman) and his henchmen, including “Black Doug” from the first film. Marshall demands the guys find and bring him Mr. Chow (Ken Jeong), who double-crossed him around the time of the first Hangover.
Alan’s specific mental-health issue has remained vague throughout the series, but whatever it is, it leads to some spectacularly dunderheaded and mean behavior. In his first scene in The Hangover Part III, Alan drives down the freeway pulling a wagon with a giraffe upright in it. It’s his new pet. The giraffe is obviously almost entirely computer-generated but still looks smart, soulful, friendly. It is decapitated by an overpass and the severed head plunges nose first into the windshield of an approaching car. The preview audience I was with seemed stunned into silence. Not by what had happened — the outcome is telegraphed from the beginning of the scene — but by a sort of larger why? Hardly anyone laughed.
What a contrast to the hilarity of the sight gag of that tiger in the bathroom of the Vegas hotel in the original movie. Even the abused, penis-nibbling monkey in The Hangover Part II seems slightly amusing in comparison. The dead giraffe served no purpose except to be grossly provocative. As oily pretty-boy Phil, Cooper demonstrated in the two earlier movies an uncanny ability to make almost any line funny, but here he’s reached his limits. It’s not Cooper’s fault, but the screenwriters’. No one, not Ernie Kovacs or Johnny Carson or Mel Brooks or even Chris Rock could make Phil’s line “Oh, come on, he killed a giraffe. Who gives a [expletive]?” funny. Other jokes that fail involve the cruel ends of a pair of guard dogs and some chickens trained for cockfighting and fueled on a diet of cocaine. They are variously shot, smothered, drugged, etc.
The threat to the dogs even causes the cynical Phil to protest. “I didn’t know you worked for PETA,” says Mr. Chow (Jeong, reprising his role from the earlier films). “What a [expletive].” Maybe that line is supposed to make the audience feel chagrined about being such softies as well, but it isn’t witty enough to work. I suppose the dumb beasts give the steadily ridiculed character of Mr. Chow someone to look down on. Homophobia and underlying racism directed at Asians permeate this movie just as they did the others, with the ambiguously sexed Mr. Chow — he had or has a wife but, like Alan, can’t stop drooling over handsome Phil — subject to considerable verbal abuse.
Despite everything, Jeong has turned playing Mr. Chow into some strange art form. He gives the character radical style and confidence; no wonder Mr. Chow has become the central figure in The Hangover Part III. Phillips perhaps couldn’t make another movie without him (although, blessedly, that promise that this is “the end” does seem serious). The impish, outrageous mischief maker is the only force propelling the movie forward, unless you count the romantic subplot involving Galifianakis’ Alan and Melissa McCarthy’s pawn-shop proprietor, which is of a piece with the usual insulting mainstream grotesquerie involving the sexuality of the overweight. The Hangover Part III is such a misery that when Mr. Chow directs the Wolfpack to “stay low, like dog” it might as well be the film’s motto.