Director/writer Todd Phillips' filmmaking career has been fairly inconsistent so far, but the peaks and positive results have always been hilariously effective. "Road Trip" was unexpectedly funny and "Old School," a comedy touchstone of sorts, practically invented the fratty, bromantic, arrested development comedy of man-children that’s become its own cottage industry genre (Example: while "Wedding Crashers" was not written by Phillips, that comedy classic owes much of its form to his college-set comedy). Then came the uneven "Starsky & Hutch" and the compromised "School For Scoundrels," which dulled Phillips' dirty politically-incorrect comedy edge.
People forget that the R-Rated comedy was struggling until the mid-aughts, when Judd Apatow and his comedy mill rolled into town, but Phillips took it all to another level with "The Hangover" in 2009, at least in terms of success when it became the highest grossing R-Rated comedy ever in the United States (though it’s since been eclipsed by "Ted"). Those with a keen memory will remember that Phillips had been developing an "Old School Dos" for his stars Will Ferrell, Luke Wilson and Vince Vaughn (most of whom blew up after the film, minus Wilson, who went into the field of cell phone commercials instead). The project never came to pass, but more than one critic suggested that "The Hangover" was a sort of quasi-remake/sequel of that formula right down to the same kind of archetypes: Zach Galifianakis as the oafish, unhinged Ferrell character, Bradley Cooper playing the arrogant ass that Vaughn occupied and Ed Helms as the straight guy role Luke Wilson inhabited. Whatever the case, "The Hangover" was a return to form, mixing the low-brow stupidity, disgusting depravity and socially unredeemable qualities into an effective dumb comedy with a lot of satisfying laughs (even if it was somewhat sub-level "Old School").
The main criticism of its sequel, "The Hangover Part II," was its lazy writing and taking out the drunken, drugged-up, blacking-out paradigm and creating an apathetic carbon copy redux of the original, only this time set in Thailand. Realizing the conceit was played out, Phillips and his co-writer Craig Mazin ("The Hangover Part II") ditched the concept entirely for the third and would-be final installment (or ditched it at least for most of the film), but apart from a few laughs, "The Hangover Part III" feels just as uninspired and indifferently written as its predecessor, though just in a different manner. Granted, it’s also somewhat better, but that’s not saying a lot.
Set two years after the events in Bangkok, tragedy reunites the Wolf Pack when Alan’s (Galifianakis) poor father (Jeffrey Tambor) -- tired of kid-gloving his reality-challenged, still-living-at-home adult son -- unexpectedly drops dead of a heart attack. Phil (Bradley Cooper), Stu (Ed Helms), Doug (Justin Bartha), his wife Tracy (Sasha Barrese) and the extended family convene for this sad occasion. Off his medication for six months, Alan’s been increasingly erratic, leaving his mom Linda (Sondra Currie) at her wits end with his behavior -- much of it causing her poor husband’s untimely death -- so she and Doug ask the friends if they will help stage an intervention. Alan must get control of his mental illness (or whatever his deal is), and the Wolf Pack agree to drive him out to Arizona to check into an institution where he can get some help.
It’s an interesting set-up that’s funny and also has some somber and serious notes eluding to Alan finally getting some real help, but the idea is quickly hijacked by the central plot -- a concept that feels like it was scribbled down in haste in some brainstorming meeting, without much thought. The ruthless gangster Marshall (John Goodman) is livid. He’s been cheated out of millions by the MIA criminal Mr. Chow (Ken Jeong). How is this the Wolf Pack’s problem? It’s not, but since Alan is the only one who’s been in contact with Chow in the last six months, Marshall’s men assault them on the road to the mental facility and the mobster gives them an ultimatum: find Chow in three days and deliver him or Doug (who they’ve taken as prisoner) will die.
So once again Justin Bartha is taken out of the picture as the Wolf Pack are left to their devices to figure out this dilemma -- and if that premise sounds abrupt, tossed-off and lazy as hell, that’s because it is. Granted, some of these misadventures -- the Wolf Pack in Mexico with Chow, a gold heist, a return to Las Vegas -- can be funny at times, thanks mostly to Galifianakis and the inappropriate humor throughout. But almost all the laughs are short-lived without satisfying results, often stemming from just utterly wrong and ridiculous situations. These are cheap, in-the-moment laughs with little sustain. And some -- Chow doing karaoke to Nine Inch Nails -- are just tone deaf and fall flat. Vegas is predictable as well, and “classic” characters like Jade (Heather Graham) and Black Doug (Mike Epps) are reintroduced for little reason other than to shoehorn them into the plot somehow.
What separates “The Hangover Part III” from its previous installments is the darker edges and themes lurking about in the film like shadows, but unfortunately they're never brought out into the light. Some have noted the movie is barely a comedy (and more of a drama?), but this is hardly the case, because the dark and dramatic underbelly of 'Part III' is flirted with, but never really explored in any substantial matter. The trilogy conclusion is more akin to Phillips’ nasty and enjoyably mean-spirited “Due Date,” but as unfocused and half-baked as it is, ‘Part III’ can’t even compete with that uneven effort, that managed to much better balance its matters of consequence with humor.
The constant promise of this darker edge is mainly just disappointing; it always feels like it’s going to pay off down the road and never does. There are hints at darker textures and character development -- is Alan ever going to grow the fuck up? -- and some serious mistakes point this out rather nakedly at times, before quickly halting these progressions abruptly as if yelling, "Ha! As if! This is a comedy, AMIRITE brahs!?" Don't mistake that for going soft, either. ’HP3’ has a few sweet and tender moments (many with Melissa McCarthy, who has a small but crucial role in the third act) and while uncharacteristic in tone, they are genuine and a welcome breath of fresh air. But lacking focus, the comedy can never coalesce these themes in any satisfying manner.
Even with the “hangover” conceit tossed aside, the film feels all too familiar, with Ken Jeong’s Mr. Chow character in particular becoming grating and wearing out his welcome all too fast (which isn’t ideal when this character is so central to the story). Galifianakis' improv skills are the movie's saving grace, but even he can't save its rather pedestrian and half-hearted approach at a somber mood. Ultimately, "The Hangover Part III” doesn't have the courage of its convictions, suggesting something dark, mean-spirited and twisted, but lands in an easy and all-too-safe territory that suggests hedging bets and not alienating the audience (it also feels a little PG-13 too). While Alan does make some significant life changes -- perhaps the one theme the film actually follows through with -- the film is still left open and without a finality that could have truly earned the claim "it all ends." In that sense, the film is just as episodic as what’s come before: this is just another adventure with the gang that's perhaps a little bit more disturbing at times.
It would be unfair and an exaggeration to say ‘Part III’ ends with a whimper, as there are a few moments to savor, but there's hardly a climatic bang and, sadly, absolutely nothing epic and explosive about this rather tepid and forgettable trilogy closer. [C-]