‘The Hangover Part III’ is Infinitely Depressing When it Should Be Funny

The Hangover Part III movie poster

The Hangover Part III” is a serious disappointment. I am not even sure it is meant to be comedy considering how dark and depressing the material is. After the spirited debauchery of the previous two films, and I have no problem defending the second, director Todd Phillips and company try to do something different instead of giving us the same old thing which is commendable, but what we get is a far too serious action movie, and not a very good one at either. While the previous two films were a lot of fun, this one is dark and largely depressing, and the laughs are few and far in between. What the hell went wrong here?

The movie starts with Alan (Zach Galifianakis) on a downward spiral as he ends up buying a giraffe for no reason other than he can, and it ends up getting accidentally decapitated while he drives it home. The stress of this crazy incident ends up leading Alan’s father, Sid (Jeffrey Tambor), to have a fatal heart attack, and at the funeral it is revealed that Alan has been off of his medication for a long time. This brings the “Wolfpack” of Phil (Bradley Cooper), Stu (Ed Helms) and Doug (Justin Bartha) back together as they stage an intervention and encourage Alan to go to a rehab facility in Arizona to get help. Alan agrees to go, but only if the Wolfpack will go with him.

But while on their drive to Arizona, they are captured and kidnapped by Black Doug (Mike Epps, reprising his role from the first film) and his boss, drug kingpin Marshall (John Goodman). It turns out Alan’s old friend Leslie Chow (Ken Jeong) has stolen $21 million in gold from Marshall, and he wants it back. Chow, at the movie’s start, has just escaped from prison and Alan, against his better judgment, has stayed in touch with him despite all the bad things he put him, Phil and Stu through. As a result, Marshall holds onto Doug and orders the three of them to find Chow and bring him back to him. If they fail to do so, he will kill Doug. Great setup for a comedy, huh?

The great thing about the two previous “Hangover” movies was how we were every bit as intrigued as the characters were in finding out what happened to them the night before, and we shared in their discoveries with a great, delirious glee. With this third movie, you get the sense none of them want to be dealing with anymore of these shenanigans and, as a result, neither do we. All the fun has gone out the window, and what we are left with is a dreary road movie which Phillips and his co-writer Craig Mazin were under the mistaken impression they could mine comedy out of.

One major mistake made in “The Hangover Part III” is the filmmakers give certain minor characters from the previous films get far too much screen time this time around. This is especially the case with Chow who we first see escaping a dark and grimy prison at the movie’s start. In small doses, Chow is a riot to watch and Jeong is a very gifted comedy actor, but this time the character overstays his welcome and quickly becomes an unlikable prick with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. There is nothing more to Chow than him raising hell, getting high on cocaine and deceiving everyone around him whether they are friend or foe, and he comes across as a needless irritation in this sequel. Just try to laugh when Chow smothers a cocaine-fed rooster to death, I dare you.

Galifianakis also gets more screen time in this one as Alan, and this proves to be another major mistake. As funny as he can be when given the right material, his shtick as Alan has now worn out its welcome. Even when he has moments of genuine sweetness, they are wrecked by the character’s obliviousness to proper human etiquette. When “The Hangover” first came out, Galifianakis came across as one of the more original comedic actors we had seen in a long time. How sad it is to see his talents squandered in his tepid reprisal of his most famous characters thus far.

As for Cooper and Helms, they just seem to be going through the motions here as their characters have little in the way of growth or depth. Cooper hit a career high with his brilliant performance in “Silver Linings Playbook” and an even bigger one with his remake of “A Star is Born,” and Helms has been endlessly hilarious in “The Office” and various other projects. But “The Hangover Part III” proves to be a big waste of their time and talents, and you get the feeling after a while they really don’t want to be in this sequel at all.

Was there anything funny going on in “The Hangover Part III” at all? Yeah, there were a few chuckles here and there. Comedic powerhouse Melissa McCarthy shows up in a cameo as pawn shop owner Cassie, and her scenes with Galifianakis succeeded in putting a smile on my face during a movie I found myself mostly frowning at. It is also great to see Heather Graham back as Jade, Stu’s escort-wife, and it allows Alan to have a sweet reunion with the baby he befriended in the first film. There is also a post-credits sequence which has the Wolfpack up to no good again, and it makes you believe Phillips and company would have been better off recycling the same old story for another movie like they did with “The Hangover Part II.”

I saw “The Hangover Part III” at an early morning screening where there were about five or six other people in the audience. I think I heard them laugh only once or twice. I shudder to think of what a sold out audience would have sounded like during this movie. There was a lot of talent involved in the making of this eagerly awaited sequel, but what we ended up with instead is an epic fail of a comedy. Seriously, few things in this life are more infinitely depressing than a comedy which does not make you laugh much, if at all.

By the way, the next time you are thinking of having a character sing Nine Inch Nail’s “Hurt” at a karaoke bar for comedic effect, don’t.

* out of * * * *

 

‘The Hangover’ is Still a Blast to Watch

The Hangover movie poster

The best way for me to describe “The Hangover” is that it is wicked funny. Not once are the filmmakers ever afraid to break any particular taboos, and its setup is ingenious. While part of me wishes that I got to see it before the hype machine exploded and went into overdrive, this movie proved to be one of the best times I had at a theater back in 2009.

“The Hangover” stars Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, Zach Galifianakis, and Justin Bartha as a group of guys who are on their way to spend a fun filled weekend in Las Vegas, Nevada. The groom, Doug Billings (Justin Bartha), is only a couple of days from becoming a married man, and his close friends and soon-to-be brother in law Alan Garner (Zach Galifianakis) take him out on the town to show him the time of his life while he is still a free man. They celebrate this moment together on the top of Caesar’s Palace where they are staying for the night with a couple shots of Jägermeister, toasting to an evening they will never forget. But it is no surprise that they do, and they have to retrace their steps in order to escape the craziness of their sudden situation.

Todd Phillips, who previously directed Will Ferrell to the Streakers Hall of Fame in “Old School,” uses “The Hangover” to continue his exploration of the lives of men who just cannot seem to grow up. Phil Wenneck (Bradley Cooper) is a schoolteacher, a married man and a father, and yet he seems the most eager of the four guys to live life to the max, free of all obligations. Stu Price (Ed Helms) treats this as an opportunity to escape his girlfriend of several years, who can never stand to have him kiss her I might add, and trick her into believing he is actually going to wine country in Napa County. For Alan Garner (Zach Galifianakis), this is just another place where he can be his usual socially maladjusted self as he is the man child character who easily creeps people out regardless of whether or not he realizes it.

By putting us in the vantage point of Phil, Stu and Alan, “The Hangover” turns into an unpredictable comedy as we go along with these three men and discover what shenanigans they ended up getting themselves Looking back, I am not sure how much these events would stand up to logical scrutiny, but this movie is so much fun, WHO CARES?! It is not like we are watching a “Saw” movie for crying out loud! What I love about “The Hangover” is how it keeps building up from one utterly bizarre situation to another, and just when you think things can’t get any worse, they do.

I refuse to spend this review ruining the best parts of the movie for you, so let us just get to the talent involved. Bradley Cooper got a great opportunity to shed his bully image which he perfected in such movies as “Wedding Crashers.” Well actually, he did not permanently shed it here as his character gets people to do things they would not otherwise do under normal circumstances. But his role here in “The Hangover” succeeded in breaking him out of his typecasting dilemma of being the snobbish bully as he gives this movie its coolest character.

Ed Helms has appeared on the American version of “The Office” and was a correspondent “The Daily Show” with Jon Stewart. As Stu Price, he gives us this movie its resident wimpy nerd character, a common stereotype in comedies. Indeed, any actor in this role could just get away with simply playing the character as a pussy-whipped bitch with the shy and awkward smiles, letting the glasses define them on the surface to where they are easily identifiable, and wearing tidy clothes in the most inappropriate of venues. The fact Helms never stoops to playing all these behaviors and appearances makes his performance come off really well. We have a good idea from the start of where Stu will end up by the movie’s end, but Helms takes him from being a wimp to a stronger man in a very believable way, and he makes Stu ever so endearing as a result.

Hey wait a second… Let’s talk about the sexiest character in “The Hangover.” She is an escort and exotic dancer named Jade, and she is played by irresistible Heather Graham. It has now been a many years since she burned herself into our collective consciousness as Rollergirl in “Boogie Nights,” and I was thrilled to see her here. No one should forget what a great actress she is, and many projects she has appeared in over the years have squandered her talent. The Hangover” shows she has not lost an ounce of her talent and never will. After all these years, she is still an actress who deserves your attention.

As Alan Garner, Zach Galifianakis gives us someone whose sanity seems to be quite questionable, and what he says about himself hints at just how screwed up he really is. You can only guess at what kind of character he really is, and the rub there is what you say about him could end up saying more about you. Alan Garner turns out to be one of the more unpredictable characters in movies to where you almost live in fear of what he might do next, and this is even if he has you laughing your ass off throughout. The way he bonds with these guys is anything but healthy.

In addition, “The Hangover” features some great cameos throughout. Seeing Mike Tyson rock out to Phil Collins’ “In The Air Tonight” is a comic highlight. I also loved Jeffrey Tambour who is always a deadpan delight in everything he does, and as Alan’s father, Sid Garner, he personifies the knowledge of how what goes on in Vegas really needs to stay there, seriously. And Ken Jeong, very memorable as a doctor in “Knocked Up,” is a gas as crime boss Mr. Chow.

“The Hangover” is not politically correct to put it mildly, but in the end, this is just a movie you should sit back and have fun watching. Years after its release, it is still a blast to take in.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Birdman movie poster

Will there be a more perfectly executed movie in 2014 than “Birdman?” It’s hard to believe there will as director Alejandro González Iñárritu succeeds in giving us a truly brilliant movie going experience which combines amazing technical aspects with a strong story and actors who give some of the best performances of their career. Your eyes will remain glued to the screen from start to finish as “Birdman” takes you on a cinematic journey we seldom go on, and you will leave the theater feeling mesmerized and in awe of what everyone managed to accomplish with a budget which is a mere fraction of today’s average blockbuster.

I’m always happy to see Michael Keaton in any movie he appears in, and he is crazy brilliant as Riggan Thomson, an actor who became a star after playing the superhero Birdman in a movie trilogy. As we catch up with him, he is now a washed-up actor whose glory days have long since passed him by. In an effort to restart his career and achieve true greatness as an actor, he decides to mount his own production of “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” a play which is based on the short stories of Raymond Carver. Riggan has put everything he has into this project and has even mortgaged his home to put up the capital for it. It’s hard not to sense his desperation as this play which he adapted to the stage, produced, directed and stars in threatens to become a total disaster.

Suffice to say, things are not going well as one of the cast members gets seriously injured before previews are set to begin, Riggan is trying to repair his relationship with his family while having an affair with one of the actresses, his daughter has just gotten out of rehab and is working as his assistant, and he has just cast a new actor whose ego is every bit as big as his talent. As his stress level increases, he begins to lose touch with reality and soon finds himself haunted by his most famous character who constantly urges him to take matters into his own hands.

Now many are calling “Birdman” Keaton’s comeback movie, but this is not entirely fair. Keaton never disappeared from the limelight, and while his career may not be as hot as it once was when he appeared in Tim Burton’s “Batman” movies, he remains a standout in each film he appears in whether it’s “The Other Guys” or “Toy Story 3.” But with “Birdman,” Keaton gets a role which is more than worthy of his talents, and he makes the most of this opportunity and then some. As unlikable as Riggan may be when it comes to how he treats others, Keaton makes you empathize with him as he tries to do right by himself as the play’s premiere comes at him sooner than he thinks. It’s a tour de force performance, and hopefully it will bring Keaton the Oscar nomination he should have gotten years ago for “Clean & Sober.”

But the real stars of “Birdman” are Iñárritu and his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki who brilliantly succeed in making this movie look as if it was all shot in one take. They make us feel like we are floating along into these characters’ lives as they struggle to make this play the best anyone in New York has ever seen. Even if you think you can spot where and when Iñárritu cuts from one scene to another, the movie still feels remarkably seamless from start to finish. Some filmmakers value the visual aspects of a movie over the acting or vice versa, but Iñárritu manages to balance out both to brilliant effect, and it makes for one heck of a cinematic experience. Heck, you can’t even help but wonder about what the cast and crew went through while making “Birdman” because there’s no way this could have been a walk in the park for anybody.

It’s impossible to think of an actor other than Edward Norton who could play the infinitely egotistical actor Mike Shiner so perfectly. Director Brett Ratner once described Norton as being someone whose mission it was to save a movie and of how this can be your best asset or your worst nightmare. I couldn’t help but think about what Ratner said as I watched Norton burst onto the scene and insinuate his character into a play about to be previewed to an audience. When it comes to method actors, they can take things too literally and Norton shows just how ridiculously far one can go. It’s one of his best performances to date.

I also loved watching Emma Stone who plays Riggan’s daughter, Sam. Stone has been a fiery actress ever since we first saw her, and you can’t take your eyes off of her whenever she’s onscreen. Stone makes Sam into a wonderfully realized character who is trying to stay one step ahead of what has brought her down in the past, and she gives a riveting performance which shows just how far her range as an actress can stretch. While she may not have been able to save “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” (in all fairness, no one could), she is a truly unforgettable presence here.

Other great performances in “Birdman” come from Naomi Watts who plays the amazingly insecure actress Lesley, and I have yet to see her suck in any movie she appears in. Andrea Riseborough, who stole a number of scenes from Tom Cruise in “Oblivion,” is wonderful as Laura, the actress Riggan may or may not have gotten pregnant. Zach Galifianakis takes on an unusual role for him as Riggan’s best friend and producer, Jake, who goes through hell in order to get this play off the ground. And then there’s Amy Ryan who plays Riggan’s ex-wife Sylvia who still has feelings for him even as he continues to do her wrong. Ryan never disappoints, and I love how she finds the good in Riggan when no one else can.

“Birdman” is the kind of movie which makes seeing movies on the big screen a sheer necessity. It challenges the realm of cinema to show what can be accomplished, and it gives us quite the kind of ride movies should be taking us on in a much more frequent way. In a year overwhelmed with tent pole franchises and a barrage of superhero franchises, this movie stands out as brilliantly unique and impossible to dismiss or forget.

* * * * out of * * * *

Keeping Up With The Joneses

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When a movie takes its title from a tagline used to promote “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” I can’t help but walk into it with high expectations. Indeed, “Keeping Up with the Joneses” boasts a plot which quickly reminded me of “True Lies” and “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” in which government spies disguise themselves as ordinary suburban residents, and it has a cast of actors who you can always count on to give you a fun time. It’s even directed by the man who gave us “Superbad” and “Adventureland,” Greg Mottola. But while it does have some inspired moments, “Keeping Up with the Joneses” ends up feeling, to put it bluntly, half-assed.

We meet Jeff Gaffney (Zach Galifianakis) who works at a corporate office as a human resources director. He is happily married to Karen (Isla Fisher), and they have two children who, as the movie starts, are heading off to summer camp for a few weeks. For the first time in years, the Gaffneys have the whole house to themselves which has them thinking of all kinds of mischief to get into, but any plans they have for getting naughty are interrupted when a new couple moves into the neighborhood.

Tim and Natalie Jones (Jon Hamm and Gal Gadot) are not your usual couple as they look as if they have traveled all over the world, and they look far too gorgeous to pass as ordinary people. As a result, the Gaffneys get overly suspicious and are eager to learn everything there is to know about them. It doesn’t take long, however, to realize they are spies, but whether they are foreign or domestic spies remains to be seen.

“Keeping Up with the Joneses” gets off to a strong start as we get a picturesque view of suburbia with the peaceful neighborhood these characters inhabit. As the camera pans around the different houses, one of them blows up into smithereens, and the explosion almost feels like something out of a Kathryn Bigelow movie. Next thing you know, the story moves back to two weeks before the explosion, so we already know this peaceful neighborhood won’t be very peaceful for much longer.

The great things about the movie is the cast. Galifianakis gets to play a different role this time around as Jeff Gaffney is not like the mentally unstable characters he became famous for playing like in “The Hangover.” Seeing him play a down to earth guy who is all about family and good times feels like a stretch for him, and it’s fun watching him opposite Hamm especially when they have lunch at an underground restaurant which is definitely not for vegans.

Hamm gets to play on his sexy guy image, and he is well matched with Gadot who looks very comfortable in the action comedy genre. Isla Fisher has been great fun to watch in any movie she appears in ever since her scene-stealing turn in “Wedding Crashers,” and she doesn’t disappoint here. There’s also a nice pair of performances from Matt Walsh and Maribeth Monroe as a pair of neighbors who might be getting a little to nosy in everyone’s affairs.

But as terrific as this cast is, they are not enough to save this movie which runs out of inspiration very quickly. It would have been more fun if the director and screenwriter kept us guessing as to whether the Joneses really were spies or not. Looking back, I kept thinking everyone missed out on various opportunities to make this movie cleverer than it is. This could have been an uproarious comedy had more effort been put into the script. After a while, we know how things are going to turn out for the four main characters here, and it just reminds us of other movies like it which were much, much better.

When the movie reaches its conclusion, it’s sunk by a predictability everyone could have avoided for the benefit of the audience. What we are left with is a premise which everyone could have and should have had a lot more fun with. The characters, despite the best efforts of the actors, could have been better developed to where they don’t feel like caricatures. The action scenes are fun, but you feel like they could have been more thrilling. Instead of accepting the movie for what it is, we keep thinking about the movie it could have been, and realizing this is depressing.

“Keeping Up with the Joneses” is one those films I analyze endlessly as I watch it because I am convinced I could have done a better job with the material. This premise could have been taken in a number of different directions and could have ended up being an insane amount of fun. But we get instead is a motion picture which have spent more time in the development phase because this one came out of the oven far too soon. It has its moments, but it could have had a lot more of them.

* * out of * * * *