NOTE: The following article contains significant plot spoilers for The Hangover and The Hangover: Part II.
Part two of “About Critics” will (probably) continue next week as something slightly more relevant requires attention first.
I’d be lying if I said that I’m surprised that my opinion of The Hangover: Part II has turned out to be somewhat controversial, and that one of the things people are taking issue with is my contention that the film lapses into an ugly (and prolonged) streak of homophobic/transphobic unpleasantness in playing out a joke involving a transsexual prostitute.
To be frank, I labored over whether or not to specifically mention the scene in the review, as the tone and running time of Escape to the Movies isn’t really conducive to dissecting individual scenes (and no, smarty-pantses, cutting out Mr. Frog and Mr. Rabbit would not have provided the necessary time) and/or the mechanics of joke-telling and physical comedy. But, ultimately, I felt it was important to highlight the outward-reaching ugliness of the sequel’s approach to its comedy as one of the reasons it didn’t work and you can’t very well do that without citing the most obvious example. And if it did seem like further fleshing out of the point was needed, well, that’s what Intermission is for.
So let’s get into this.
First things first, nothing about Hangover 2 can be understood outside the context of also understanding Hangover 1 – the sequel’s plot and structure are a blatant repurposing of the original, with nearly every joke and scenario being either a one-upping or a subversion of a moment from the original. Likewise, Hangover 1 itself cannot be properly understood without also understanding Las Vegas, Nevada – the city of its setting.
Vegas, both as a city and an institution, holds a unique place in the American psyche. As one of the few cities with wide-scale legalized gambling, located in a state where prostitution is mostly legal (though heavily regulated), its reputation is less that of a vacation spot than of a neutral zone for social mores. And while its public face has been reworked into more of a family destination in recent years, everyone still knows the score.
The enduring perception is that Vegas is a place where what would be light criminality anywhere else can be engaged in casually – so long as you can afford it. The state’s own tourism industry openly joins in this wink-wink marketing with the slogan “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas,” repeated in gently leering ads aimed not at the openly debauched but rather at mid-upscale (mostly male) professionals. “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas,” then, is understood to actually mean that otherwise respectable upper-middle-class men (yes, the ads also feature women, but the over-arching tone is expressly masculine) can temporarily suspend their adherence to the various social contracts without worry of any consequences following them home.
The “What happens…” ads were at a pop cultural zenith when the first Hangover was conceived, and it’s no coincidence: It’s a movie about the exact sort of men most likely to be targeted/entranced by the slogan finding themselves in a situation where “What happens in Vegas” is most definitely not going to stay there. They aren’t simply waking up woozy after a party, they’re waking up from a consequence-free fantasy only to be smacked in the face, repeatedly, by a consequence-filled reality.
Importantly, the three main characters of The Hangover (Justin Bartha doesn’t count, as he is a plot device in both films) are not especially likable men. Bradley Cooper’s Phil is a sleazy, perpetually adolescent horndog – Glen Quagmire made flesh. Ed Helms’ Stu is a henpecked twit passive-aggressively “letting” his friends “drag” him into sketchy situations. Zach Galifanakis’ Alan is the closest among them to nice, mostly by virtue of being a developmentally stunted manchild who doesn’t know any better – and even he is implied to be guilty of some ill-defined indiscretions (he’s not allowed near schoolyards). Our heroes, ladies and gentlemen. Their intentions in Vegas are openly exploitative: They’re jerks, looking to use the town and its various parts to play-act at being slightly bigger jerks and come out clean.
Also importantly, the key obstacles they find standing between them and their clean-escape are largely icons of Vegas’ “harmless” single-serving hedonism fantasy turned to harmful reality by the light of morning. A domesticated pet tiger (a fixture of the Vegas stage scene) nearly mauls them, a walking joke has-been celebrity (Mike Tyson) beats them up and a wacky foreign tourist (Ken Jeong) turns out to be a dangerously unhinged international criminal.
But the most awkward reality check comes from the ultimate symbol of Sin City’s usable humanity: The Hooker, whom Stu has accidentally married and given a priceless family heirloom. Getting those two situations fixed would be tough even if she was just a hooker, which is what they assume they’re dealing with at first, but the reality is even stickier. She turns out to be a sweetheart – a kindly, good-natured real human being, which is much harder for them to deal with.
The happy hooker subplot is the heart (such as it is) of The Hangover. Live tiger in the bathroom? Comparatively easy to deal with. The person you pay to use for sex is actually a human being with feelings you’d actually rather not hurt, but you kind of have to? That’s a tough nut to crack.
In the second one, on the other hand…
All of the gags in Hangover 2 are deliberate reworkings of similar scenarios from the first, and the new version of “Stu married a hooker” is “Stu had sex with a transsexual hooker.” But this time, the dynamic has been inverted in a vastly less interesting direction. “Oh crap, the hooker is actually really nice and we can’t just blow her off, take the ring and be done with it” is now “Oh crap, I had sex with a transsexual … Gross!”
Um … ha ha?
Not only is the gag not especially funny – unless, of course, the sight of an otherwise female-looking person sporting male genitalia is itself inherently hilarious and/or disgusting to you, which is the attitude the movie appears to take – it heads in a dark direction. Stu basically has a nervous breakdown at the revelation, in a manner so profoundly over the top (even compared to the same moment freakout in #1) that it’s obviously that the film is setting up the same sort of gag as before … except it doesn’t. There’s no turnaround on Stu this time; “Ew, yuck!” is the extent of the gag.
Meanwhile, the other character of interest in the scene more or less ceases to be human (in eyes of the film) the moment her “extra feature” is made apparent – as far as the editing, shot choices and camerawork of the scene is concerned, The Wolfpack may as well be in the company of the Queen Alien. It’s a pretty grim inversion. The scene allegedly being one upped from the original was about giving Stu (and the others) a much-deserved slap in the face by humanizing another character; this version is about increasing Stu’s standing as a victim of Bangkok’s “weirdness” by de-humanizing another character.
It’s a trite scene informed by an ugly undercurrent of homo/transphobia, but it’s also emblematic of how the rest of the sequel fumbles the ball. Hangover 1 was all about the reality of Vegas beating the snot out of characters who’d approached it through the prism of the Vegas Fantasy. Hangover 2 is, by contrast, about Bangkok – a city largely imagined, not entirely without merit, by the Western world to be something like a less-pleasant Mos Eisley – turning out to be exactly the wretched hive of freaks, crooks and weird/terrifying foreign people they expect it to be.
Expectations being met is not funny.
And neither is Hangover 2.
Bob Chipman is a film critic and independent filmmaker. If you’ve heard of him before, you have officially been spending way too much time on the internet.