Heart of Fartness: The latest Hangover punches down

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May 23, 2013 at 4:00 am
Heart of Fartness: The latest Hangover punches down

The unlikeliest of all the Hangover trilogy's comic implausibilities might be its four pampered, rich-boy leads unironically calling themselves the "Wolf Pack" without anybody ever making fun of them.

In the slobs-versus-snobs comedies of the 1970s and '80s, the snooty rich kids were always the antagonists, bullying the nerds and cheating at cross-camp field days. They were shitty human beings who probably grew up to be like Ellis from Die Hard or EPA agent Walter Peck from Ghostbusters. We identified with the slobs because Americans like underdogs, and also because the slobs were so often played by Bill Murray. But the snobs could be hilarious, too — see, for example, every single line spoken by Ted Knight as Judge Smails in Caddyshack.

Now the snobs have seized the cultural momentum and basically won the American economy. With The Hangover Part III, director Todd Phillips continues to occupy an apt (and very lucrative) niche, casting rich, entitled fraternity dicks as underdog heroes beset by shrewish women, foreigners with funny accents, and even animals — often cute animals with big, dewy eyes.

"So he killed a giraffe — who gives a fuck?" says Bradley Cooper, in what amounts to a candid articulation of the trilogy's worldview. Cooper's Phil is defending the sub-neurotypical Alan (Zach Galifianakis), who has, indeed, beheaded an adorable giraffe.

Unlike its predecessors, The Hangover Part III doesn't open with the aftermath of a substance binge. Alan has quit taking unspecified meds, causing him to behave like an enormous bastard. Following the death of his wealthy father and a family intervention, the "Apple Dumpling Gang" — sorry, "Wolf Pack" — agrees to accompany him on a cross-country road trip to a vaguely described inpatient psych facility.

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They're intercepted by the first film's crime boss, Black Doug (Mike Epps), and his boss, Marshall (John Goodman), who force the "Special People's Club" — sorry, "Wolf Pack" — to undertake a quest for Leslie Chow (Dr. Ken Jeong), who has stolen $21 million in gold bars.

The ensuing crime plot involves an elaborate housebreaking, Mexican jail, some dead dogs, some dead chickens, base-jumping over Las Vegas, and a lot of punching down at lower-status characters. It's a violent film, and the leads, though amiably antisocial, aren't murderers. The psychopathic Chow becomes a kind of storytelling force majeure, descending from the sky to kill inconvenient antagonists so Cooper, Galifianakis, and Helms won't get non-giraffe blood on their hands.

The momentum of the Hangover films lies in forcibly upending the status quo, sending the pieces flying, and then restoring it exactly. The "Best Friends Gang" — sorry, "Wolf Pack" — plunges into life-and-death situations involving gangsters and duffel bags full of bullion, but like sitcom characters, emerge unchanged. It's the definition of a reactionary worldview that Judge Smails would approve of. Sure, Alan meets a girl (the awesome Melissa McCarthy, who has a cumulative four minutes of screen time), but they only connect because they have exactly the same personality, reflecting and affirming their mutual callowness.

The anxious Stu (Ed Helms), who lost a tooth and awoke with a facial tattoo in the previous films, here goes unmaimed. Stu's redemptive moment in the first film was standing up to his cartoonishly mean-spirited girlfriend; now he struggles with the professional insecurity that doctors are more admired than dentists, a conflict that is not riveting. While sparing Stu from scarring injuries and relationships avoids repeating the jokes of the earlier Hangovers, it robs this film of the single character who ever had a chance of growing.

In his stand-up work, Galifianakis is less ingenuous than Alan, but both the comedian and the character obliviously violate social norms. He's never funnier than when he's bluntly asserting absurdities as obvious facts. In all three films, Alan is both the story's means of status-quo–upheaval and the ultimate source of its restoration, encapsulated by a "nothing changes" speech at the conclusion. His naiveté continually thwarts the group's strategies and activates new plot threads, and the cluelessness of his cruelty to other people at least is intentionally grounded in the character's privileged and overprotected background.

What Warner Brothers marketing is now calling the "Wolf Pack Trilogy" is funny but unlovable, asking the audience not just to laugh at all this meanness but actively to identify with it. There's nothing in the film's world to contradict the self-satisfaction of its characters, and even the bad guy honors the "Wolf Pack"'s dumbass name.

At its best, antisocial comedy is society-affirming, because it capitalizes on a shared sense of social norms and the outrageousness of violating them. It wouldn't be possible to laugh at Judge Smails if you didn't sense his solipsism and selfishness. You're being asked to laugh at him, not with him. By contrast, the Hangover franchise positions spoiled douchebags as admirable and cool, visually aggrandized with slow-motion hero walks like Gemini astronauts in The Right Stuff. Phillips is zero percent interested in exploring the narcissism of his characters, as long as they arrive back exactly at the point of departure. So he killed a giraffe. Who gives a fuck?

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