How Did <i>The Hangover</i> Series Become So Successful?

05/24/2013 8:55 AM |

The Hangover Part III

Even if The Hangover Part III bombs out this weekend—and that seems unlikely—the Hangover trilogy will finish its run as easily one of the most successful comedy franchises of all time, even more so after you eliminate effects or action-based movies like Back to the Future or Beverly Hills Cop. This in turn makes Todd Phillips, the director and cowriter of the three movies, along with several other hits like Road Trip, Old School, and Due Date, one of our most successful comic filmmakers. Jay Roach, who worked on Hangover‘s recent comedy competition as director of three Austin Powers and two Fockers pictures, might lay claim to some competition, but his movies are built around the pre-established personas and sensibilities of Mike Myers and Ben Stiller. Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, and Zach Galifianakis, meanwhile, are stars largely because of The Hangover. (And by contrast, the Phillips movie with the most star power going in, Starsky and Hutch with Stiller and Owen Wilson, was a hit, but not as iconic as the first Hangover or even Old School.)

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Whether moviegoers know his name or not, then, Todd Phillips is the driving force behind this series. His view of men as eternal adolescents masquerading as normal adults, susceptible to the takeover of their misbehaving ids, is a darker-tinted version of Judd Apatow’s time-delayed coming-of-age stories. In Phillips movies, no one really comes of age so much as they agree to hold back their destructive streaks in order to deploy them as needed. For this worldview, Phillips has garnered some degree of critical respect: his comedies aren’t afraid to go dark; he shoots them like real widescreen movies in rich cinematic colors, not sitcom lighting; he makes crowd-pleasers that still push the envelope.

I confess that this validation has often baffled me. Most of that praise, granted, was directed at the first Hangover movie, not The Hangover Part II, which was pretty much the exact same movie but was greeted with a fair amount of derision. Some of this has to do with freshness, I guess, but the first movie isn’t all that fresh either: it’s basically Dude, Where’s My Car? with Justin Bartha playing the car (and that stoner comedy was itself essentially remade, and better, with Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle). But if anything, The Hangover Part II is truer to the nastiness raised by the first movie. When alpha-jerk Phil (Cooper), panicky Stu (Helms) and lunatic Alan (Galifianakis) get together and unleash their ids via drug-assisted blackout drinking, Phil and in particular Stu (with Alan as their stunted enabler) are tearing apart the middle-class respectability that must, on some level, chafe them; then they groggily try to piece themselves back together. The sequel’s repetitive ante-upping only makes this clearer: in the first movie, Stu loses a tooth and marries a sunny-faced hooker by Heather Graham. In the second, he gets fucked by a transsexual hooker, acquires a face tattoo, and gives an impassioned, half-terrified speech about the demon inside of him.

Despite the attempt at escalation, the first two films both, in the end, use their darkest instincts as sort of a comic fashion accessory; they’re not sweet enough to work as buddy comedies but also not quite sour or cutting enough to work as satire. (For a comedy that plays both sides of the fence and laughs at itself for doing so, I implore, once more, for recognition of Adam McKay’s Step Brothers.) This left me wondering about where Phillips would go for the inevitable third (and allegedly final) installment, especially given the vaguely apocalyptic “it all ends” ad campaign, imitating the portent of the series-closing installments of Warner Brothers stablemates Dark Knight Rises and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

As it turns out, The Hangover Part III backs away from both the repetition of the second film and the curdled meanness of the series as a whole. It picks up with Alan in a tailspin, off his meds and reeling from a death in the family; Phil, Stu, and Doug (Bartha, forever marginalized) agree to bring him to a recovery clinic. They’re sidelined not by a night of debauchery but by the appearance of an imposing gangster Marshall (John Goodman), looking for Mr. Chow (Ken Jeong), the unhinged criminal who stole a cache of gold bricks from him. Marshall takes Doug hostage, and charges the other three with tracking down Chow and his money. So yes, we’ve arrived at The Hangover III: The Legend of Chow’s Gold.