'The Hangover' giveth and 'The Hangover' taketh away.

The first 'Hangover' made Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, and especially Zach Galifianakis stars, and it elevated Todd Phillips from middling Hollywood director to name-brand comic auteur. But in the film industry, success that surprising and enormous demands more success; the beast must be fed. But as 'The Hangover Part II' and especially the new 'Hangover Part III' prove, it is very hard to make a good sequel to a truly original idea. 'Part II' went the rehash route, recycling the plot of the first movie so brazenly you almost had to admire its chutzpah. 'Part III' finally breaks with the formula a little (SPOILER ALERT: there is no hangover), but still doesn't produce anything even remotely worthy of the first film.

Having apparently exhausted every conceivable way of getting its characters blackout drunk ("It's my son's bris! What did you put in the Manischewitz?!") this installment instead follows them as they attempt to bring Galifianakis' Alan to a rehab facility where, they hope, he'll finally get his shambling, man-child existence under control. But a mostly-not-very-funny thing happened on the way to the detox: a gangster named Marshall (John Goodman) runs their minivan off the road because, for reasons I never quite understood, he blames Alan and the rest of the so-called "Wolfpack" -- Phil (Cooper), Stu (Helms), and Doug (Justin Bartha) -- for the theft of $21 million of his gold by their occasional criminal cokehead associate Leslie Chow (Ken Jeong). Holding Doug as insurance, Marshall gives the boys 3 days to find Chow and return his money.

From there, the script by Phillips and Craig Mazin does assume the contours of a 'Hangover' movie; a series of enormously large breadcrumbs that lead our heroes from one increasingly outrageous comic setpiece to the next. Only this time the setpieces aren't particularly clever. Even more than the previous sequel, the comedy in 'The Hangover Part III' is almost entirely predicated on the charisma of the stars. So there isn't a punchline to Jeong acting like a dog, sniffing Helms' butt, and eating dog food for no reason whatsoever -- that is the punchline. And there's no real comic payoff to Galifianakis' relationship with a pawn shop employee played by Melissa McCarthy other than a lengthy bit where they share a lollipop together. Again, no joke there, just the sorta-amusing, sorta-gross sight of two people swapping spit. Galifianakis and Jeong are funny guys, but the lack of actual comedic material here, along with their characters' overwhelming obnoxiousness, really put that notion to the test.

'The Hangover Part III' opens with two different deaths, one animal, one human, both at the hands of Alan. Its climax takes place in the penthouse suite of Caesar's Palace, where strobe lights, strippers, gold bars, and cocaine transform a debauched paradise into a terrifying vision of sin. In between, the Wolfpack become witnesses to murder and assorted other horrors, all moments which suggest that a truly dark sequel to 'The Hangover,' one where all the characters' hedonistic vices came home to roost, could have been a really interesting movie. But 'Part III' is still beholden to the theory, if not the execution, that the sequel to a comedy needs to be a comedy. Alas.

Save a few intermittent chuckles, 'The Hangover Part III' is a grating, depressing experience. Mostly, I felt sad for Cooper, Helms, and Galifianakis, who do not look like they're having a very good time. Like their characters, the actors are trapped in this unending nightmare -- held hostage by a franchise that gave them everything and now demands payback.


'The Hangover Part III opens in theaters on May 23.

Matt Singer is a Webby award winning writer and podcaster. He currently runs the Criticwire blog on Indiewire and co-hosts the Filmspotting: Streaming Video Unit podcast. His criticism has appeared in the pages of The Village Voice and Time Out New York and on ‘Ebert Presents at the Movies.’ He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, dog, and a prop sword from the movie ‘Gymkata.’

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