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The Hangover Part 2 (2011)

That's What You Get for Waking Up in Bangkok

Well, this is weird: The Hangover Part 2 is almost a beat-for-beat remake of the first film. Accidentally roofied during a bachelor party, a group of three middle-aged misfits wake up the next morning with no recollection of the destruction they've caused an entire city. Substitute Las Vegas for Bangkok, and there's your sequel. I hate cheap cash-ins that feebly attempt to recreate the magic of a surprise blockbuster with the simple rinse/repeat strategy.

Fortunately, so does director Todd Phillips, whose follow-up is not only a better comedy than 2009's The Hangover, but also a solid, stand-alone film. If that sounds contradictory to my opening paragraph, welcome to my confusion. It's true that a version of all of the first film's events play out for a second time, but Phillips and co-writers Craig Mazin and Scot Armstrong keep things interesting and exciting by A) delivering solid laughs from about the ten-minute mark through the middle of the end credits, and B) tweaking the first movie's conventions just enough to surprise an audience expecting a Xerox of that screenplay.

This time out, nerdy dentist Stu (Ed Helms) invites his best friends Phil (Bradley Cooper) and Doug (Justin Bartha) to his destination wedding in Thailand.  He dumped the stripper he fell for in the Vegas movie, preferring instead to settle down with a nice, normal girl named Lauren (Jamie Chung). The guys invite her genius teenage brother, Teddy (Mason Lee), to hang out with them before the ceremony. Stu is also guilted into including Alan (Zach Galifianakis), Doug's socially awkward stepbrother.  It was Alan who drugged the gang during their last adventure, and Stu goes out of his way to not accept open bottles of liquor from anyone in Thailand.

Despite his vigilance, he wakes up in a filthy Bangkok hotel with Phil, Alan, and an unconscious Mr. Chow (Ken Jeong), the drug lord who'd nearly killed them two years ago. Chow is the only person with a recollection of the previous evening's escapades, which included, apparently, adopting a jeans-vest-wearing monkey and losing Teddy in the city (not all of him, though: his severed finger winds up in a glass of water next to Phil). But before Chow can spill the beans, he drops dead of a cocaine overdose.

As you can imagine, the rest of the film sees the guys searching for Teddy and making their way back to the resort in time for Stu's wedding. Doug, who'd left the party early, keeps in phone contact with his friends and does his best to stall Lauren and her increasingly impatient family. To delve further into the plot would spoil a really great time at the movies.  If you've seen the trailers for The Hangover Part 2, then you've caught glimpses of the over-the-top wackiness; luckily, the best stuff was saved for the feature film.

What makes this movie so outstanding is Phillips' willingness to make the exact kind of movie he wanted to make. I can only assume this is true, of course, but the evidence is all over the picture. It's as if he knew that his film would dominate the box office for at least the opening weekend, and so felt no need to play it safe with expectations of story or tone. He includes brilliant comedic moments that are somehow both absurd and sweet (such as a brief look at the world through Alan's eyes and the best use of Billy Joel's "The Downeaster 'Alexa'" anyone could have ever imagined), as well as scenes that take a far darker turn than any of the original's "heavy" portions (one of the characters gets shot--and not in a cute way--and the characters' sweaty, defeated looks throughout most of the picture convey genuine fear and shame).  Sure, Phillips wraps everything up with a happy ending, but he takes some nasty, weird roads to get there.

The Hangover Part 2 reminds me a lot of recent horror sequels Halloween 2 and Hostel Part 2. In each case, the writers and directors took pleasing the audience out of the equation and made challenging, grotesque pieces of entertainment that almost dared viewers to like them. One of the ways Phillips accomplishes this is by changing the placement of his story beats.  For instance, the first movie had a case of mistaken identity at the climax. There's a similar issue here, but it happens much earlier on, and that's an important distinction.  By subtly disorienting the audience, on an almost subconscious level, the creators render viewers incapable of staying on their toes, even when they come across scenes they think are simply retreads. I'll admit, I saw some of the gags coming, but the dialogue made up for a lot of the predictability--as did a handful of scenes (one involving Paul Giamatti on a rooftop) that totally threw me for a loop.

Phillips' coup de grace is a series of little touches that reward ecclectic and deranged cinephiles. You've probably heard about the controversial hiring-then-firing of Mel Gibson as this movie's surprise celebrity cameo (Mike Tyson filled this role in part one).  Instead of getting another wacky household name to occupy the slot, Phillips brings in Nick Cassavetes--who maybe ten people will know as the director of The Notebook.

Of course, many will go to this film just to see Galifianakis do strange shit. They won't be disappointed, but they may also be surprised to see Ed Helms step into the Leading Man role--edging out the classically dashing and just-shy-of-vainly-bland Cooper.  Helms doesn't just return to the role of Stu, he embodies the growth that his character has experienced in the two years between movies. That may sound like actorly bullshit, but as with every character in the movie, we're watching a person who's been affected by their own actions; not a video game character who's been reset. It'd be easy to say that Galifianakis steals the show, but his very welcome oddball presence does nothing to detract from a great supporting cast.

Some of you will refuse to swallow this, and I completely understand.  Everything about The Hangover Part 2 looks like a rehash from the outside. But there's a lot of heart, brains and wit stuffed into this movie that most of Judd Apatow's work and the abysmally insulting Bridesmaids wish they could have tapped into. Todd Phillips makes movies about man-children; but unlike his contemporaries he doesn't neglect the "man" part of the psyche.  Underneath the grimy layers of severed body parts, smoking monkeys and tranny strippers are positive messages about friendship, maturity, and commitment that are just as likely to cause introspection as frequent belly-laughs.

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