“The Hangover: Part II” won’t be everyone’s cup of raunch. I’ve got liberal friends who consider it homophobic and sexist while admitting they laughed their heads off, which in itself is a hugely amusing moral conundrum.
In my book laughter trumps every other concern of comedy, and despite a slow start “Hangover 2” is crammed with laughs. Guilty laughs, perhaps. But laughs. Big ones.
That explains why on its opening weekend it sucked up more than $100 million, setting a new box office record for an R-rated comedy.
It did not earn all that money on the basis of its originality, for this film and its predecessor have almost identical plots. A group of American males engaging in a weekend bachelor party consume a memory-obliterating cocktail of alcohol and drugs and awaken in a trashed hotel room surrounded by the evidence of a world-class orgy.
In both films a member of their party has vanished and the remaining dudes must somehow follow the clues scattered among the detritus — a baby, a live tiger, a monkey in a denim Rolling Stones vest, a severed human finger — in order to retrace their wobbly steps of the night before and find their missing pal.
The main difference between the two films is that the first one was set in Sin City USA, Las Vegas. This sequel is set in the sin capital of Asia, Bangkok.
It’s easy enough to view the “Hangover” movies as variations on the frat house comedy, filled with horny, thrill-seeking adolescent personalities.
But far from celebrating puerile behavior, the “Hangovers” sneakily stick pins in the concept of the party-hearty American manboy.
Both films center on three recurring characters.
First there’s Phil (Bradley Cooper), a profanity-spewing school teacher who exudes the hip on-the-prowl carnality of a singles-bar satyr. He’s cynical and sexy — Cooper is an extremely hot rising star at the moment — except that Phil never acts on it.
Phil may talk a good a good debauch, but he’s apparently faithfully married and has kids (early in “Hangover 2” he attends a luncheon with his buds, toting his infant offspring like a fashion accessory).
Sexy guy; absolutely no action.
Then there’s Alan (Zach Galifianakis), a thirtysomething version of an overfed child. He’s whiny, self-centered, not very bright and, one suspects, a live-at-home virgin.
Alan provides the comedy of stupidity. He’s alternately maddening and kind of pathetic.
Finally there’s Stu (Ed Helms), a nerdy, buttoned-down dentist. Stu is dullness personified — cautious, clean cut, unfailingly polite and at the start of the first film brutally henpecked by his bad-tempered live-in girlfriend.
Except that beneath his Boys State exterior there’s a nest of demons.
In the first “Hangover” we learn that on his all-night binge an obliterated Stu married a Vegas pole dancer/hooker (Heather Graham), whose baby it is that the boys are lugging around the Strip. On a dare Stu also extracted one of his own front teeth without anesthesia.
In “Hangover 2” Stu is the groom, engaged to the beautiful daughter of a Thai businessman (apparently that first Vegas marriage was short-lived). He awakens in a Bangkok flophouse sporting a fresh tattoo on his face. Apparently with a bit of alcohol in him the wild man bursts forth.
Trying to figure out where they were the night before, these three characters end up in a nightclub/whorehouse populated with gorgeous Asian girls dressed in pink schoolgirl outfits and revealing nighties.
One of these beauties immediately recognizes Stu and reveals that the previous night they made passionate love, after which Stu wept with gratitude.
But that’s just the first of several shocks to Stu’s system. These girls are all hermaphrodites, he discovers. Chicks with … well, you know.
And Stu is humiliated to learn that in this lovemaking session he was on the, er, receiving end.
In a funny and oddly touching moment, Stu confronts the reality of his inner wild man:
“Apparently I like prostitutes. All sorts of prostitutes.”
It’s a funny line, thanks to Helms’ rueful delivery. But it’s only the beginning.
At the film’s end, over the closing credits, “Hangover” treats us to a collection of cell phone photos taken by the crazed partiers and only discovered in the aftermath of their adventure.
Among them is a series of outrageous shots of an ecstatic Stu being serviced by his beautiful, well-hung Thai hooker. They are rude and raunchy and, depending upon your tolerance for such things, hugely offensive.
Except that they’re not really that offensive. Part of it is that they are chronological still photos, not live action film, which somehow makes the sex more quaint than repellent.
But mostly it’s because the look on Stu’s face is one of almost religious ecstasy and grateful release. This uptight, do-what’s-expected-of-you whitebread guy has gnarly depths we could never have guessed at, and that sudden recognition is both terribly funny and bizarrely sweet.
Here’s the other wild thing about those photos: They make audiences roar with laughter.
I can remember not so long ago (say, the year of “Brokeback Mountain”) when an onscreen kiss between two men elicited groans of alarm and disgust from nervous mainstream audiences.
All together now: “Eeeeeewwwwwwww.”
That this doesn’t happen during screenings of “Hangover 2,” that audiences laugh and applaud and actually feel a connection to poor bottled-up Stu and his moment of hard-to-categorize passion, is really quite encouraging. Through laughter “Hangover 2” makes us accomplices to his tawdry encounter — enablers, even.
This is quite a remarkable transformation. Which is why I consider “The Hangover: Part II” to be the year’s most subversive movie.