I still have a hangover from The Hangover Part II. Initially it went down a lot like 2009’s The Hangover, which is to say, tasteless and comically potent. Three men again retrace their missteps from their blacked-out previous night, looking for a missing member of a wedding party as the ceremony approaches. Set in Thailand, the sequel is darker and tawdrier than the original and not quite as uproarious. Aiming for replication, it can’t help being mannered. Every dirty word arrives with a sense of calculated bravado; every gander at flapping male genitalia might as well be accompanied by trumpets.
Most of the laughs go down easily. Most. Not the one where someone calls a Middle Easterner a camel jockey. And a bit that makes 1992’s The Crying Game look restrained mainly illuminates how comfortable the filmmakers are with homophobia. Stu (Ed Helms), Phil (Bradley Cooper, the handsomest lizard in America) and Alan (Zach Galifianakis) handle a fresh corpse and a gunshot wound with more aplomb than they do the revelation that someone they knew had sex with a man. (Accidentally! Kind of.) And when I looked in the mirror the next day, I realized I’d consumed too many shots of a pet monkey doing awful things. According to Alan, “When a monkey nibbles on a penis, it’s funny in any language,” but actually it’s only funny the first time. Then it just feels perverted and cruel.
The slender plot serves only to get the group to a place where sin is readily available. Having been liberated from a harridan in the first film, some two years later dentist Stu finds a real soul mate (Jamie Chung) and plans to marry her in Thailand. Or as socially challenged, probably-has–Asperger’s syndrome Alan likes to call it, Thighland. I kept forgetting what the fiancée’s name is (Lauren) but not what Phil says about her: she’s an angel and has a “solid rack for an Asian.” The former is certainly true: she forgives everything, even that the guys put the life of her 16-year-old brother Teddy (played by Ang Lee’s cute son Mason) in danger.
As for her “solid rack,” I defer to Phil’s expertise. Such audacity is as important to The Hangover franchise as the bachelor-party theme. You are supposed to walk out thinking, How do they get away with this?, while not-so-secretly relishing that they do. Chatting about solid racks is commonplace in the average human wolf pack — that’s what Alan likes to call the crew — and that’s part of the franchise’s success. So is liberation from routine. Thailand, with its thriving sex industry, is even more suited than Las Vegas to loosening inhibitions (and boundaries: there’s a pedophilia joke). Bangkok stuns even guys who lived through a night with Mike Tyson and Mr. Chow in Vegas. “Holler,” screeches Mr. Chow (Ken Jeong, reprising the role). “City of squalor.”
As the stud of the group (although apparently happily married), Phil is the de facto leader of the pack. Cooper gives a knowing performance: he’s both the peacock and the parody of one. He’s blessed with good looks and fantastic timing, the kind that makes every line funnier, even the small asides. “Eight stitches,” he muses as they leave a doctor’s office. “It only cost $6. How is that possible?” Though more of a straight man, Helms has pitch-perfect timing too. Then there’s Galifianakis, the strange antagonistic creature, the anti–movie star, without whom none of this would be possible. The chemistry this trio has is special; the premise of the sequel seems worn, but the way they work against and with one another is what provides the pleasure. Everyone else in the cast is essentially irrelevant, with the exception of Jeong. His comic intonations — a little effeminate, heavily singsong, completely politically incorrect — are so purely funny, no one will much care that it makes no sense for Mr. Chow to be in Thailand.
Because it doesn’t tamper with a hugely successful formula, The Hangover Part II is bound to be a hit. Which means there’s a good chance these guys will get wasted and screw up monumentally a third time. There’s one bachelor left in the crew after all: Alan. Surely he wouldn’t bring roofies to his own wedding. Could these actors gather for an occasion that doesn’t involve losing consciousness and still be funny? I’d like to think so, but it’s far more likely that somewhere, a screenwriter is already looking at a blank page, saying to himself, O.K., how can we top that monkey business?