I think Gus Van Sant would appreciate The Hangover Part II. After all, the movie is a nearly beat for beat remake of the original; some elements are moved around and the movie makes some arch references to itself, but generally this is the exact same film as The Hangover, except that it takes place in Thailand. It’s not hard to imagine the writers doing a find/replace search on the original script to exchange “Vegas” for “Bangkok.”
If there’s a wrong way to see The Hangover Part II, I did it. Having never seen the original film, I finally watched it less than 12 hours before seeing the new movie; instead of getting me up to speed, this viewing served only to underline what an identical film the sequel was. I felt, at times, like I was simply rewatching the movie I had just finished. But as the film went on I found I didn’t care, because Todd Phillips and his cast had actually brought energy to the proceedings and weren’t simply sleepwalking through the old script. They were manically running through the old script.
The big problem with having The Hangover Part II be a remake of the first is that the first works because of the surprise in the structure. It’s a movie that is precisely structured so that something crazy happens just as the film begins to slow down, and it never feels shoe-horned in. The movie isn’t particularly funny - it’s funny enough but the jokes tend to the weak and easy - but it is wonderfully structured and paced. By definition the freshness of that structure and pacing can’t exist in the sequel; halfway through I found myself getting a little tired and impatient because I knew what wacky twist and turn was coming next. While the first The Hangover builds to a crescendo, The Hangover Part II is like listening to that slowly fading piano chord at the end of A Day In The Life. And the movie really does just stumble to the finish line, perfunctorily wrapping things up and getting to the wedding. There’s a character who loses a finger and at the end he’s pretty blase about it.
Of course it would be weird for the movie to acknowledge any of the emotional fallout of the events, since that’s not part of The Hangover narrative. What’s interesting about this movie (and about Todd Phillips’ movies in general) is that the characters are horrible assholes, and that’s when they’re sober. When drunk they turn into actual sociopaths. The film does nod to this a bit, with Ed Helms talking about having a demon in him, but since this is a mainstream middle of the road movie there’s no follow-up on his demonic nature.
There are a couple of new elements in this film, the best being a peek inside Alan’s head, showing us the world as he sees it. Everybody’s played by a child, and something as simple as a kid doing coke is very, very funny. But beyond that these characters go nowhere and there’s little insight into them. Again, that’s the formula, and The Hangover Part II sticks ruthlessly to it.
On the topic of Alan I have to commend the film for not leaning on Zach Galifianakis too much. What’s interesting about him in these movies is that he’s playing something much weirder than everybody else; he’s coming in from a much more interesting film. He’s doing a variation on the Belushi slob character, but he gets to the childish heart of that character in ways that other Belushi imitators never did. What makes Galifianakis’ Alan more than just another Belushi retread, though, is that he goes deeper than childish and gets flat out surreal with the character; he manages to be both the heart of the movie (such as it is. Phillips has never been interested in making movies containing real emotions) and the weirdest part of it. It would be easy to push Galifianakis to the front of the film, and at the start I was worried that was the direction the sequel was taking, but eventually the balance between the characters evened out.
As far as retreads go The Hangover Part II works well enough. It’s funny and it’s well made - Todd Phillips shoots the nicest looking comedies out there. He also stages action very well, and I think the car chase in The Hangover Part II is better than most action we’ll see in action movies this summer. But the film could have been great - even if it remained a retread - by going dark. There are hints of darkness in the film, and some of the stuff in the movie is rougher than the first movie, but it never truly goes uncomfortable places. If the movie had gone truly dark, gotten really aggressively ugly, it would be worth something. That’s the only reason to make The Hangover Part II (well, besides the whole greed thing) - you can take many more chances with the sequel.
Instead the movie plays fairly safe, missing a lot of opportunities. As a result there’s no real reason to see The Hangover Part II, especially if you own the original on home video. But there’s no harm in seeing it and the movie is funny enough. The Hangover Part II never makes a convincing argument for its existence, but it works exactly as much as it has to in order to not be a bad movie.