By this point it’s been pretty well established that “The Hangover Part II” is a dud. It’s actually kind of embarrassingly bad, given the incredible similarity between the sequel and the original. It’s as if someone took the entire plot of “The Hangover” and grafted it onto the unsuspecting city of Bangkok, down to the slightest narrative detail. Everything has a parallel: they’ve switched the tiger out for a monkey, a missing Justin Bartha for a missing Mason Lee, and Heather Graham for a transgender stripper. It’s more than a little exhausting, all the way up to and through the end credits.
Yet for some reason I find all of this fascinating. How is it that a group of screenwriters can sit down and just replicate their earlier film exactly? Obviously it’s an easy formula to pull in cash, and the movie will probably make a killing this weekend. But somehow that doesn’t seem like a good enough explanation. No one writes a sequel without at least attempting to do something new or different. In a particularly optimistic interview with MTV, director Todd Phillips even compares the two movies to “The Godfather”:
"We had always planned on calling it 'The Hangover 2,' and when we finished the script, I changed the cover page and wrote 'The Hangover Part II,' because I think the film lives up to or exceeds the first one. It was very much a nod to 'The Godfather.' "
So then what exactly were they trying to do, if they clearly didn’t put much effort into updating the story (or even the characters)? The change is in the humor itself. Phillips and his writers seem to have approached this sequel with the intention of taking the original’s already outrageous comedy and bumping it up to the next level. The only real difference between the two films is the degree of over-the-top depravity. And honestly, it’s also the sequel’s biggest failure. What is clearly an attempt to really push the envelope turns out to be a veritable “Carlos Mencia-fication” of the jokes. “The Hangover Part II” isn’t so much outrageously hilarious as it is loud, racially insensitive and homophobic.
Passing aside the portrayal of an entire city as a whirling black hole of criminality and enigmatic savagery (in a way it’s like “Heart of Darkness” with dick jokes), there are plenty more obvious ways in which “The Hangover Part II” just misses the boat on racial representation entirely. First off, there’s Stu’s (Ed Helms) fiancée and her family. The father, of course, is a strict disciplinarian who doesn’t like the lame dentist her daughter has brought home. He’s also pressured his son into going to Stanford as a tween, and to become a virtuoso at the cello. The set-up doesn’t even try to legitimize itself with humor, in the manner of most other stereotype-dependent comedies. Teddy is actually just a cello-playing boy genius because he’s an Asian teenager in a movie. It’s embarrassing.
Not that the unfortunate representation of Thailand and its people stops when the dudes leave their wedding resort. There’s a wonderful moment when, desperately trying to find Teddy, our confused Americans go to a Buddhist monastery somewhere outside of the city. Naturally, the monks have taken a vow of silence, which turns out to be not only inconvenient but also violent. When the guys try talking to the monks, one of the holy men takes his giant stick and starts beating them. Never mind that this is a non-violent religious order, it’s apparently hilarious when a big silent Thai gentleman in robes beats a bunch of Americans for just opening their mouths. Rationality be damned.
I could go on and on about the tired and more than a little condescending “Westerner abroad” motif that dominates the film’s portrayal of Bangkok. Ken Jeong is the only Asian character our heroes meet in the city that has a real role in the film. Opposite the incompetent Thai police there’s Paul Giamatti as the white gangster who runs the town. Opposite the unhelpful and silent monk is a white tattoo artist who gives the guys some directions and advice. The reason for putting the sequel in Thailand appears to be little more than the ease with which Phillips et al. can turn Asian caricatures into elaborate and uninspired bawdy jokes.
Well, that and the transgender hookers. Bangkok, after all, is internationally known for its extraordinary transgender culture, which “The Hangover Part II” takes as a gift. Remember in “The Hangover” when we discover that Stu character got married the night before to stripper Heather Graham? In the spirit of ratcheting up the outrageousness, it is revealed in the sequel (at almost exactly the same place in the narrative) that not only did he have sex with another stripper, but she’s got a penis. Suddenly the frame is full of them, previously unnoticed on the transgender staff, which is designed to set the target audience into a boisterous combination of laughter and retching. The rationale seems to be that the only way to outdo a drunken wedding in Vegas is to bring about the unthinkable: gay sex. In a single scene, the movie manages to reduce itself to the level of uninspired dick jokes and tired homophobic humor.
Though I suppose it’s nice that she’s there, as otherwise there wouldn’t be anyone female at all with any impact on the film’s narrative. Stu’s young and beautiful fiancée has absolutely nothing to do beyond accepting him lovingly into her arms after he’s almost ruined her wedding. Phil’s (Bradley Cooper) wife doesn’t even talk. At least the last time around Graham got something mildly interesting to do. Her transsexual replacement is used as a prop, and the women opposite our protagonists back at the resort might as well sit off screen for the whole 100 minutes.
I know I’m supposed to accept this, because it’s a guy’s movie about and for dudes. But the filmmakers used a single method to try updating and outdoing the original: outrageous and exaggerated humor. It failed. The result of its failure is a movie that manages to be impressively racially insensitive and homophobic at the same time. Yes, it’s a movie about white straight men and it’s geared to white straight men, but is that reason enough to just ignore its problems? It’s not as if the movie were offensive but hilarious, it’s just a disaster. Yet a disaster can offer a unique opportunity for discussion. This movie is going to be destroyed by the critics, but in the aftermath will anyone be talking about how or why it failed? I hope so.
"The Hangover Part II" opens today everywhere.
Recommended if you like: "The Hangover"; "I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry"'; "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom"