Reviewed by Stephen Himes
The problem with “The Hangover 2” isn’t that it’s the same movie as the first. Todd Phillips has deeply-thought ideas, and is willing to alienate his audience for long periods. But the result slightly xenophobic at best, and outright racist at worst.
The genius of the original “The Hangover” was its tight, Sophoclean structure. It begins in media res with Doug’s bachelor party and wedding. After some necessary exposition, the story captures twenty-four hours where our initial impressions of the characters give way to larger truths. The storyteller gradually reveals sordid details about the past, and the characters reveal themselves under extreme stress. In modern times, Ibsen revived the structure, which was then borrowed by, among others, Tennessee Williams and noir films. Phillips strictly applied this classical structure to a modern genre, creating an virtuoso exercise in comedic form. Perhaps the most accurate description of “The Hangover” is a Apatowian A Doll’s House, where we see Stu kick his emasculating bitchy wife to the curb like Nora walks out on her condescending and psychologically abusive husband.
Sure, the big reveal isn’t some Ibsenian insight into human nature, but director Todd Phillips brilliantly creeped back the details of their night, tearing apart the initial impressions of Phil, Stu, and Alan. Stu buries his id under a veneer of mild-mannered middle class dentistry. Phil acts douche-bag cool, but is in many ways the squarest of the bunch. And Alan’s cultural pomposity masks deep insecurities about his ability to connect with people. Again, this ain’t Antigone, but Phillips does have something to say about the fronts put up by American men.
If you really want to give Phillips credit, he imagines Las Vegas as the American id, where what happens in Vegas is the indulgence of desire, which must stay in Vegas for man to return to “real” life back in the suburbs. In the film, Las Vegas is what men repress in order to have good jobs, good wives, and good houses. For dentists like Stu and social outcasts like Alan, this makes sense. More interesting is that in Phillips’ imagination, the most outwardly Vegas-savvy guy is a paradox: a men’s magazine cool middle school Catholic teacher.
Thus one of two major issues with “The Hangover 2.” First, the sequel is about Stu’s marriage to a Thai heiress who is, to put it mildly, way out of his league and whose dad calls him soggy white rice during the rehearsal dinner. In reconstructing this hangover, we discover the same thing as we did in the first: Mild-mannered Stu is a repressed dynamo. Phillips should have focused on one of the other characters—probably Phil. Again, Phil is the Moe of these three Stooges, and again, we find that when the roofies are on and the inhibitions are down, Phil is the lamest of the bunch. In fact, he seems to have the most stable marriage in a socially-responsible job…what gives?
This leads to the second issue with “The Hangover 2.” Large stretches of this movie are not funny. Without spoiling too much, it’s not funny when Phil gets shot by Russian mobsters. It’s not funny when, if you think about it, Stu is put at serious risk of contracting HIV. If anything, “The Hangover 2” is more of a horror film than a comedy.
You may think the problem is that by trying to out-do the first, all the gags are amp-ed up, miscalculated into shock-horror rather than shock-comedy. And that may be right to an extent. But Todd Phillips is way too good a comedy director to not know this isn’t funny.
Instead, Phillips seems to have a much larger point. By putting these thoroughly white-bread, middle class Americans in the third world, Phillips is saying, look, guys, we’ve all been to Vegas, and sure, it’s wild and crazy fun. But it’s safe. If you mind your business and don’t count cards, you’re not going to get shot or stabbed or have the mafia cut off your fingers, and there aren’t tranny prostitutes running through the Belagio. Vegas is staged decadence, sanitized for your protection. If you really want to indulge your darkest appetites, truly break free of all social constraint, here’s what that freakin’ looks like.
Or, as Asian gangster Mr. Chow says, “Bangkok! Holla, City of Squal-lah!” In fact, that should have been the subtitle to “The Hangover 2.” As said several times about Stu’s lost brother-in-law, “Bangkok’s got him now.” There are lots of allusions to the city’s child sex trade, the pervasive drug and disease culture, international organized crime exploiting the city’s poor…the whole Bangkok thing. Again, most of what happens (including a tear-gas gang riot outside a night club) really isn’t that funny.
On the surface, Phillips is making a good point by inviting comparisons between Vegas and Bangkok. Yes, the standard of living is going down, too many people don’t get proper health care, there are large urban and rural food deserts, and the drug war has in some areas created a virtual police state. All these are true. But for most Americans, things are safe, and if our idea of decadence is Las Vegas, then we really don’t understand how good we’ve got it.
But this argument also echoes Heart of Darkness. African writer Chinua Achebe (Things Falls Apart) famously declared Joseph Conrad a racist for using Africa as the “backdrop for the breakup of one petty European mind,” arguing that by symbolically making Africa the id, he dehumanizes the entire continent. Basically, by thrusting “civilized” white people into this “savage” culture, he treats the “natives” (itself a dehumanizing term) as a lesser species.
This argument haunted Danny Boyle’s Oscar winner “Slumdog Millionaire,” which depicted Mumbai as a city of violence, thievery, corruption, sexual depravity, and squalor. In short, poverty porn. Remember the scene where the boy swims through an outhouse shit poind to get a movie star autograph? The opening with the police torturing the hanged man at the station? The acid eye bath? The man set on fire? And it goes on from there. Man, what a messed up place that Mumbai is! But jeez, how entertaining that Danny Boyle makes it!
This is precisely what Todd Phillips is going after—it has to be, or why else would he up the ante by setting his unfunny “Hangover” movie in…Bangkok? Because Bangkok is worse than Vegas, this movie is going to be more outrageous!
This leads to the question of racism. On the one hand, Phillips’ point about sanitized Vegas is valid and necessary. Look not only to the odd family-friendly Vegas makeover of the last decade, but also to the new generation of Nevada strip-mall casinos in the sprawl of Carson City and Reno. There are very real consequences in Vegas, but as long as you keep yourself in check, it’s still America—there’s not CONSEQUENCES.
On the other hand, is Phillips’ depiction of Bangkok exploitative? Is he trading on the perception of the lawlessness of non-America/Europe to make his movie seem cool? And really, is most of Bangkok that much worse than the worst slums in the Western world? On the other hand, Gary Glitter was not frequenting the Strip. I’m not sure how to answer this question, but in “The Hangover 2”I hear faint echoes of the astoundingly racist Heart of Darkness argument in the wake of the Lara Logan rape in Tahrir Square: Basically, “Well, what’d you expect when a pretty white girl goes into Africa?”
To quote Peter King, the only thing I think I think about “The Hangover 2” is that it’s not as brazen and hypocritical as “Sex and the City 2,” a film that was offended by people who would find something offensive in something so offensive. And the n-bomb is dropped a conspicuous number of times in a movie without black people. Still, I can’t shake the Stu/tranny scene. Without giving away too much of the gag, Stu has an encounter with a prostitute, just like in Vegas. But the way this happens, according to many studies from world health organizations, Stu might have up to a 50% chance of being infected with HIV. Yet the sodomy is a running joke, but the potential consequences aren’t even mentioned. If you found out you did that in the red light district of Bangkok (without a condom, which is part of the joke), wouldn’t you be first concerned about getting tested, then concerned about getting you and your two dopey friends to the altar on time? In the end, it seems like Todd Phillips wanted to make a hard-edged satire, and in many ways, I admire that he was willing to challenge his audience. On the other hand, he didn’t follow his ideas to their logical conclusion. Imagine if the Wolfpack just gave up after returning Mike Tyson’s tiger and left Doug on the roof of the hotel.