Thursday, June 9, 2011

the hangover 2

I went to see The Hangover 2 yesterday. I haven't seen The Hangover so my opinions of the movie are mostly on its own merits and not how it measures up as a sequel. But I have seen a number of reviews of The Hangover 2, how it compares to the original, and how it falls short both in originality and by making others, the Other in fact, the butt of the jokes this time around.

Stu Price (Ed Helms) is getting married, this time to a nice Thai girl (played by Jamie Chung, who I last saw playing a teenager in Sucker Punch). Her parents want the wedding to be in Thailand so the Wolf Pack re-unites, reluctantly, to make the trip to Thailand. Although Stu wants to avoid a repeat of their Vegas hijinks, unfortunately the crew wake up in a shitty hotel room and are forced to piece together the previous night's insanity in time to save Stu's wedding.

I don't really want to re-cap the plot here. Go see it if you're so inclined. Like I said at the beginning, I can't really tell you how The Hangover 2 stacks up to the original. But I do have a few words about the groupthink of critical reviews.

In case you haven't heard them, the mantra goes something like this. The Hangover was funny because these mostly average guys were the butt of the jokes. Vegas swallowed them up and spit them out. The Hangover 2, on the other hand, is more mean-spirited because it makes other people the butt of the jokes rather than the Wolf Pack.

The scene many critics point to to drive this point home is the one where the Wolf Pack return to a strip club to try to piece together more of last night. As they interview one of the dancers, things go from bad (Stu cheated on his bride-to-be with a Bangkok stripper) to worse when comments are pieced together to reveal that the stripper is actually a shemale. The scene is complete with a full frontal nudity shot of the very busty ladyboy with penis as well as a few other naked ladyboys walking by to reveal that that's this club's stock in trade.

Much is made of the gross out factor by critics, who feel this scene epitomizes the meanness of the sequel's tone. I take a slightly different view. Yes, the penis reveal is played for shock & discomfort value, but there's not really any meanness about it. Stu freaks out but Phil (Bradley Cooper) calms him down by telling him to just forget it. Phil alludes to lots of terrible things he's done that he's just forgotten. And this seems to be enough for Stu to soldier on through the rest of the Maguffin hunt.

Aside: Is it just me, or is Phil pretty much the same character as Vince Vaughn's Beanie Camplbell in Old School? Maybe that should come as no surprise since both were directed by Todd Phillips.

What I think is important here to note is the lack of malice or deep homophobia. Stu isn't angry at the ladyboy who penetrated him; he doesn't shout slanders or slurs at her and references to the incident later in the film lack virulent disgust. And Phil and Allen (Zack Galifianakis) don't attack Stu's identity based on his gender-bending encounter. Sure, it's not a long meditation on trans identity and gender roles, but this is a gross out comedy, not a contender at Sundance. Given the overall tone of the film, I didn't feel this scene was particularly mean-spirited and if anything, more mature about a hetero man and a ladyboy having sex than most of its audience.

But there are two underlying problems with the movie.

First, there's the lack of consequences. Stu was barebacked by the ladyboy stripper but the possibility of STD transmission doesn't even occur. Too serious for a gross out comedy? Sure. But STDs, including HIV, are a major problem in Thailand's sex work industry. Glossing over it feels irresponsible. In fact, the only worry that Stu et al have is his fiancee finding out that he's cheated. Said ethical dilemma, however, evaporates by the end of the film.

Let's briefly return to the Maguffin. From what I understand of the first film, Doug, the groom-to-be, goes missing in the first film and the Wolf Pack must piece together the previous night in order to find him. In The Hangover 2, Teddy (Mason Lee), Stu's fiancee's younger brother, a 16 year old prodigy at Stanford pre-med and cellist, is the missing Maguffin. Joining them for one beer on the beach, Teddy goes missing after losing a finger this time around.

Ok, back to the no consequences problem. Stu, in a moment of clarity, realizes he has a "demon inside" him, one with a penchant for sex workers of all stripes, apparently. After searching for most of 2 days for Teddy, only to find out the person who says he had him was lying, Stu decided to call off the wedding to save his bride-to-be from the evil that men like him do. Then he puts the pieces together to deduce where Teddy is. Emboldened by his flash of memory, Stu reconsiders his plans to end the relationship and the Wolf Pack rush off to save Teddy.

Teddy has lost a finger, basically ending his career as a surgeon and a cellist. But he isn't upset about it at all. Rather, he considers the evening out fondly even though he can't remember most of it. And when Stu and co finally arrive to the wedding late, Stu owns the "demon inside me" realization, presenting to his soon to be father-in-law as proof positive that he isn't the tasteless mushy rice porridge the man compared him to at the rehearsal dinner toast.

Neither the sister or the father, for whom Teddy is his "prized possession," are at all angry that Teddy has lost a finger and, incredulously, neither blame Stu or his buddies for the permanent maiming of the young ingenue. One ridiculous speech garners Lauren's reconfirmation of love and earns the father's respect. They don't even freaking acknowledge the missing finger!!!

As they are prepared to say their vows, Lauren remains steadfast to Stu, saying that she could grow accustomed to the Mike Tyson-esque tribal tattoo on his face. But she wants to switch sides at the altar so she doesn't have to see it.

So, let's see. Ending up in Bangkok 2 days prior to the wedding. Losing and maiming the youngest child. Bareback anal sex with a ladyboy. Routinely getting so wasted with his buddies that he blacks out. None of these things has consequences for Stu. He ends up marrying the docile Asian girl with the blessing of her father in the end. Um, no. Too many loose ends. Maybe Teddy could see losing his finger as a way to escape his father's pressure, giving him the freedom to pursue his own dreams, but said subplot is not developed and still wouldn't explain why the rest of the family is so nonchalant about the whole thing. These unacknowledged and unresolved tensions left me stupefied. Did they even bother to review this script?

My other problem with the movie is how it treats Bangkok and Asians in general. Lauren is the docile Asian girl.[1] She has only a quick flash of anger at Stu's antics that has little effect. As I mentioned above, she's treated as the docile Asian woman in the exotic erotic fashion. The lush tropical environment as the Wolf Pack arrive and start their misadventures at the resort where the wedding is to take place serve as the perfect backdrop for this fetishized female caricature.

Teddy's non-threatening to everybody but Allen, who doesn't want a new face in the Wolf Pack. It's actually Allen's jealous scheme to remove Teddy from the picture for a few hours that launches the debauched evening. But otherwise Teddy's all smiles and accepting of whatever is inflicted upon him, be it by his father or the Wolf Pack. He's also docile.

And then there's the city. "Bangkok has got him now" is a refrain repeated often as the Wolf Pack look for Teddy. Meaning the city's seedy underbelly won't return Teddy. Bangkok is filled with international gangsters (including an amusing cameo by Joe Rogan), ladyboy hookers, plastic bags of Fanta, drug dealing moneys, and other exotica. It's the "Orient," a far off place of forbidden pleasures and untold dangers.

The only people who actually suffer any consequences as a result of the Wolf Pack are Asians. Mr. Chow (Ken Jeong) ends up arrested by an undercover Interpol agent (Paul Giamatti) who baited the Wolf Pack to present the gangster with false promises to release Teddy. Teddy loses his finger. All Stu gets is a tattoo on his face and Allen has his head shaved. Even the drug dealing monkey takes a bullet while these 3 guys skate through life avoiding all but the most superficial of negative consequences.

The Wolf Pack wins. But really, do we want these guys to?

[1]Yes, there are pictures of Jamie Chung with a lot less clothes floating around the internet. But I wanted to emphasize that she's a very pretty girl from the neck up. Haven't seen her do a lot of acting, but I thought she was woefully underutilized in Sucker Punch, a movie I intended fully to review when I say it in May. Let me make you a promise. Let me talk about the Electric Ballroom in London and the Pains of Being Pure at Heart show next and then I'll give you my 2 cents on Sucker Punch.

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  2. I have just downloaded iStripper, so I can have the sexiest virtual strippers on my desktop.