Comedy is a complex issue to discuss, but a simple one to judge. There are many types of cinematic comedies, with wildly varying levels of ambition, but for the most part, the basic barometer for success is an easy one to gauge: Does the film make one laugh? It is as subjective a critical criterion as exists, personal to the specific tastes of the individual, and when it comes to films like The Hangover and its sequels, it is essentially the only question that matters. These are not satires, intent on examining real-world issues through humor, nor do they strive to make any stylistic or aesthetic innovations. While the films live and die by the strength of the ensemble, often doing surprisingly heartfelt and effective work with the relationships of the core trio, any and all elements of character study are secondary to the humor.
So when I say that I like The Hangover Part III, oftentimes very much, that mostly means that I laughed, consistently and heavily, from start to finish. I felt the same way about the first film, and even about the second, which I recognize is an unpopular opinion to hold. No matter. My own comedic sensibilities just happen to align with those of the filmmakers, and if you find yourself thinking the same way, I am sure you will have fun with the film as well. It is fairly remarkable for a comedy series to continue delivering laughs even one film past the original, but a comedy threequel being legitimately enjoyable? That is a rare beast indeed, and while Part III is not a great or even hugely memorable comedy, it is certainly of a piece with its predecessors, qualitatively, tonally, and, for the most part, narratively.
That may disappoint some of you to hear, as the central problem many had with Part II was its beat-for-beat narrative similarity to the original film. Part III shakes things up to a certain extent, with a story that ditches the drug-fueled memory loss shenanigans of the first two movies in favor of something a tad more straightforward. John Goodman plays a new character, Marshall, a drug lord with connections to the previous adventures of the ‘Wolfpack.’ Marshall was robbed $21 million in gold by Leslie Chow (Ken Jeong), the whirling dervish of cocaine and mayhem who caused so much trouble in the first two films, and kidnaps the perennially off-screen Doug (Justin Bartha) to force Phil (Bradley Cooper), Stu (Ed Helms), and Alan (Zach Galifianakis) to find Chow for him.
Despite the paradigm shift, this is still every inch a Hangover movie, with the main characters going from place to place, investigating, getting in trouble, and encountering increasingly ridiculous obstacles on their journey to set things right. It does not feel substantially different from its predecessors, and I cannot really imagine those who took umbrage with Part II for its lack of narrative originality being satisfied with how Part III tinkers with the formula. But comedy sequels are a lose-lose proposition to begin with, at least when it comes to storytelling, and I enjoyed the solution used to make Part II – the original, only exponentially darker – just as I appreciate how co-writer/director Todd Phillips and company have tackled this one, playing with the notion of consequence – the comic fuel of the entire trilogy – as a full-circle means to both humor and finality.
That is, after all, exactly what I and so many others found funny about this series in the first place. Where many R-rated comedies find fuel in depicting bad or ridiculous behavior, the Hangover films have always been about what follows immature and irresponsible actions. There is a really twisted, practically disturbed sensibility to so much of the humor in these films – Part II, if pitched even slightly differently, would be downright disturbing (and sometimes is anyway) – because consequences are what follow and haunt us throughout life, and being able to touch that nerve comically is a valuable asset. The Hangover films are at their funniest when they are able to impart a total sense of chaos, of the real danger and total confusion that comes from being in a difficult and incomprehensible situation, and while Part III does not revolutionize the formula, it does cleverly reorient the consequential aspect of the humor so that it stems from everything that happened in the prior films.
In short, the film is very, very funny, in exactly the way one would expect from a Hangover film, albeit tweaked and enhanced just enough to feel fresh. Tonally, this is a clear return to the atmosphere of the first film, which will be a relief for those who found Part II too dark to laugh at (a sentiment I understand without necessarily agreeing with). The film certainly feels chaotic in all the right ways though, even if some of the plotting is too clean and some of the challenges too simplistic to feel fully satisfying. But in Hangover tradition, when things get out of control, they get very out of control, and extremely funny to boot. The big third act set piece, set at Caesar’s Palace, is wonderfully demented and screamingly hilarious, and the decision to include Leslie Chow in the majority of the action is an inspired one. Ken Jeong is so brilliant in this part, a live-action Looney Tunes cartoon brought to life (albeit one with a cocaine addiction and an extremely violent streak), and making him omnipresent creates the constant, darkly comic sense that could spiral into an anarchic mess at any given mess – which, of course, they frequently do.
Much of the humor continues to be character-centric, and the cast is still perfectly up to the task. Especially after Silver Linings Playbook, it is readily apparent that Bradley Cooper could be playing this part in his sleep, but he still comes across as fully engaged, the straight man with the wild edge whose forward-thinking drive is both an asset and a hindrance. Ed Helms loses the core tenant of his shtick this time around – Stu being tormented to ludicrous degrees – but it allows him to play calmer, more human sides of the character. He gets the fewest laughs, but is an important part of the overall chemistry nevertheless.
And Zach Galifianakis is, as always, the beating heart and soul of these films, both comically and dramatically. He approaches this part as if it is the role of a lifetime, and earns huge humorous and emotional dividends as a result. Impressively, The Hangover Part III really does feel like a valuable, satisfying conclusion to this series, primarily by honing in on the Galifianakis character and giving him a tight, touching arc that informs where he has been, where he is now, and where he might go in the future. Galifianakis and his rampant insanity are as funny as ever, but there are also so many truly moving moments this time around as Alan faces the challenges of adulthood. As noted before, I do not think Part III innovates narratively in any significant ways, but the new plot structure does allow these characters, and Alan in particular, to be affected by the events of these films, and the finale follows through with a conclusion that, while hardly revelatory, feels entirely fitting for the franchise.
A conclusion that is, of course, entirely undercut by a screamingly funny, totally bonkers mid-credits sequence, one that is cynical in the extreme but feels like the proper, sardonic note on which to close the series. Ultimately, The Hangover Part III really does allow audiences to view this unlikely franchise as a trilogy, which is only one of the movie’s unexpected accomplishments. I still would not call any of these films ‘great,’ nor do I necessarily imagine myself revisiting them frequently in the future, but I do find it rather remarkable that one comedy series managed to deliver three solid, often hilarious and clever installments. That’s normally against the rules for this genre, it seems, but absolutely welcome nevertheless. Good laughs can be hard to come by these days, and I appreciate the large dose of fun this final film provides.