The aching unfunniness of The Hangover Part III shouldn't be a surprise, I suppose. Any franchise chained to the premise of wedding-related debauchery can only stagger downhill after its first installment. Still, this movie rarely rises to the level of even our most minimal expectations.
The story is launched with a shot of a live giraffe in a trailer being driven under a freeway overpass that's much too low for the animal's head to clear. As a comic ploy, this desperate stretch (a giraffe?) is so startlingly miscalculated that you immediately begin to worry if it's setting the tone for the rest of the picture. Spoiler: it is.
The usual gang is back onboard: nice-guy Phil (Bradley Cooper), jittery Stu (Ed Helms), nitwit Alan (Zach Galifianakis), and peripheral Doug (Justin Bartha, once again shuffled to the sidelines as quickly as possible). Franchise director Todd Phillips, who cowrote the script with Craig Mazin (also guilty of cowriting Hangover II), has dumped the tired bachelor-party motif, but failed to find anything worth replacing it with. This time out, the formerly lovable Alan has gone off his meds and morphed into an obnoxious horror. His family has booked him into an Arizona rehab (for obnoxious horrors, apparently), and his pals are prevailed upon to drive him there. En route, they're attacked by a gang of thugs wearing Porky Pig masks. (Why? They remove them immediately.) The gang's leader is a mobster named Marshall (John Goodman) and he's searching for a character the boys know well: the demented Chinese scam artist Mr. Chow (Ken Jeong, a squealing annoyance once more). Chow has stolen $21-million in gold bullion from Marshall, and he wants it back, along with Chow. Marshall knows the guys are acquainted with the little creep, so he orders them to find him, or else he'll kill Doug. (Not that we'd care.)
The boys find Chow in Tijuana, where among other unlikely things he's become a cockfighting entrepreneur (cue attack by coked-up roosters). He takes them to a nearby villa where he's hidden the hoard of gold; after they've dug it out from behind a wall for him, Chow stuffs the gleaming bars into some duffle bags and scampers away with surprising ease. (A little research suggests that each of the gold bars on view here weighs about 25 pounds. There must be a couple dozen of them. You do the math.)
The boys next follow Chow to Las Vegas, scene of their memorably lunatic escapades in the first Hangover. If only anything here rose to that level of hilarity. There's a nice interlude in a pawnshop in which Alan flirts with the proprietor (Melissa McCarthy – we're so happy to see her) and then fumbles with a collapsing rack of musical instruments (possibly a nod to the old Inspector Clouseau movies). Mainly, though, there's much chasing and chasing after Chow, on and on and on. I think this would have been a lot more sidesplitting if everyone were more wasted. (Chow is flying high on coke and bath salts, but he's so irritating I kept wishing someone would hook him up to a Valium IV.)
Cooper and Helms are little more than observers here; the focus is strongly on Galifianakis, who has never been so charmless. Dragging the movie down even more is the streak of curdled nastiness that runs through it. Apart from the luckless giraffe at the beginning, there's a chicken that's smothered to death, a Hispanic housekeeper who's sneeringly humiliated, and a woman in a wheelchair who's cruelly bullied. At a funeral for Alan's father, the chubby sociopath tells his grieving mother he wishes she had died instead. In addition, the movie has only the most casual interest in making sense. At the funeral, Alan delivers a long falsetto rendition of Schubert's "Ave Maria" for no good reason whatsoever. Similarly puzzling are the story's recurring homoerotic flourishes: as they crawl along on a floor at one point, Chow giddily buries his face in Stu's buttocks; later he tells Stu, "I could be a good wife to you." Wut?
Phillips has been emphatic in declaring this movie to be the final entry in the Hangover series. No matter how much money the picture makes, that's a promise that should never be broken.
The story continues. Eighteen years ago, director Richard Linklater devised a way to examine the mysteries of love without boring us all stiff. The method he employed involved little in the way of plot or action, but lots and lots of talk, captured in very long takes. The talk had to be really good, of course, and it was – the dialogue sounded as if it were being made up on the spot, rather than memorized from a script. This was a wonderfully colloquial approach to some deep human issues, and in Before Midnight, Linklater's third chapter of this mesmerizing tale, it still sings.
The central characters, once again, are Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy). When we first met them, in the 1995 Before Sunrise, Jesse was a 20-something American knocking around Europe on a Eurail pass and Celine was a Parisian university student. They met on a train, got off at Vienna and walked around the city all night long, talking and flirting and wondering if they might be soul mates. Jesse had to catch a flight home to the States in the morning, but they vowed to reunite in Vienna in six months.
In the 2004 Before Sunset, we learned that they never kept that appointment. Now they were in their early 30s. Jesse was a writer, on a European book tour to promote his bestselling first novel. In a Paris bookstore, he encountered Celine again, and their spark rekindled. They spent the day walking around Paris, talking about their desires and disappointments. Jesse was unhappily married, with a young son he adored. Celine had a boyfriend, but it wasn't serious. At the end of the day, when it came time for Jesse to catch another flight home, it looked like he might not be making it.
In Before Midnight, we see that Jesse did miss that flight. He and Celine, now in their early 40s, have been together ever since. They have twin daughters, and have settled into a perhaps too-comfortable union. We find them at the end of a summer vacation in sunny southern Greece, where Jesse's son, Hank, now 13, has been staying with them. Hank is a little remote, and Jesse can't figure out how to break through to him. Seeing him off at the airport to return home to his mother, Jesse offers to fly over for a visit sometime. Hank tells him not to bother, "because Mom hates you so much." Outside, in the car with Celine, Jesse says, "Time's going by so fast."
The movie is constructed as a series of ravishing long scenes. In the first of these, which takes place entirely inside the couple's car, we sense that Jesse and Celine's love is still alive but, inevitably, no longer fueled by youthful passion. Celine, tired of devoting herself to environmental activism, has just secured a real job, and is eager to begin a real career. But Jesse wants to relocate their little family back to the States to be near Hank. Celine is flabbergasted. "I'm surprised we lasted this long," she says.
Can love ever endure, or must it always crumple into duty or betrayal? At a sunny alfresco lunch with two other couples, opinions are mixed. "I wonder if the idea of love that lasts forever is obsolete," says one woman. Later, walking through the rustic streets of a nearby village, Celine tells Jesse, "If you were meeting me for the first time today, you wouldn't notice me." Jesse brushes that thought aside, but says, "I wish it was easier to maintain a certain level of passion."
The fact that Hawke and Delpy have aged right along with Jesse and Celine gives them a rare purchase on these characters and their evolving emotional states. There doesn't seem to be any "acting" going on – although of course there is. And while their dialogue still has the ebb and flow of improvisation, the film is once again tightly scripted (by Linklater, Hawke and Delpy, whose Before Sunset screenplay was nominated for an Oscar). The combination of such high-level performance and subtle construction, in a picture in which nothing blows up, is actually thrilling.
The movie peaks in a bravura scene at a small hotel, where Jesse and Celine are spending the final night of their vacation. Temporarily free of the kids, they begin making love. But suddenly an argument wells up, and soon they're pelting each other with long-stifled suspicions and discontents. Could this be the end? A very lifelike ambiguity drifts in at the movie's conclusion. Nine years from now, maybe we'll find out what happened.