Death hangs over The Hangover Part III, the alleged final chapter in director Todd Phillips’s franchise about a group of vacationing dudes prone to all sorts of dick-centric depravity. Beginning with the fatal heart attack of rich-boy lunatic Alan’s (Zach Galifianakis) father, Sid (Jeffrey Tambor), and carrying on with a diptych of brutal shootings, a sense of mortality is palpably felt for the first time in the series. Sid’s funeral reunites the Wolfpack in mourning, but they soon find themselves with guns to their heads and at the mercy of Marshall (John Goodman), a crime lord willing to trade the life of Alan’s brother-in-law, Doug (Justin Bartha), for Mr. Chow (Ken Jeong) and the gold he stole from Marshall right after the events of the first film.
In other words, a great reckoning is called for in The Hangover Part III. The financial, psychological, and physical damage gleefully provoked or committed by the Wolfpack and Mr. Chow in the first two films is the bedrock on which the third film is built and leads into darker narrative terrain wherein the characters are meant to repay a moral and fiscal debt for their unerring recklessness. Chow’s violent, careless debauchery has hit a fever pitch, and he’s become a symbol and extension of the chaotic idiocy of Alan and his fellow Wolfpack members, Phil (Bradley Cooper) and Stu (Ed Helms). In capturing Chow, and severing ties with him, the Wolfpack members express both exhaustion and guilt over the highly dangerous hijinks that have landed them in their current predicament.
Considering that the previous film merely upped the depravity and lowered the moral stakes of the first film, The Hangover Part III’s concept of being tied into some final retribution for all the chaos the Wolfpack has caused is promising and surprisingly ambitious. The story, which revolves around the robbery of a Tijuana villa and the kidnapping of Chow from his Las Vegas penthouse, leaves the door open for such rumination and seriousness by focusing on Alan and his need to end his destructive relationship with Chow. Unfortunately, the filmmakers put very little effort into developing the pair’s breakup, and further dull their pretenses toward weightiness with innumerable callbacks to the previous films’ most inane moments, repetitive jokes, and stock sentimentalism.
The introduction of Cassie (Melissa McCarthy), a crass pawnshop owner who catches Alan’s eye, and a reunion with Jade (Heather Graham) and “Carlos,” the stray baby from the first film, offer Alan even more reasons to turn his back on the psychotic Chow, but his full realization of the pain he’s inflicted, and his need to grow up, comes without much conflict and less reflection. At one point, Marshall shoots one of his flunkies and the Wolfpack is understandably shocked and disturbed, but violence is never really visited upon the central trio, nor do they suffer any major emotional losses. As the film goes on, the sense of mortal and moral damage and risk is tempered to the point that when Alan finally tells Chow off, the sense of relief and maturation in Alan barely registers. The passiveness of the characters—and the script—more or less negates the grimness of the earlier scenes and renders The Hangover Part III into a sequel every bit as disposable as its predecessor.
The film is best when it subverts the formula of its oversized predecessors, such as Chow’s oddly chilling karaoke rendition of Johnny Cash’s cover of “Hurt.” It’s a subtle, effective sign of his devious intentions and speaks to the darker elements of the film, but the filmmakers too often lean on the established juvenility of the earlier films. Alan’s absurd selfishness is simply no longer funny, and an early scene where Alan sings “Ave Maria” at a funeral feels like an unoriginal, passionless crib of the superior climax of Step Brothers. Though Phillips exudes competence as a director and works well with comedians, he wastes promising scenes on gimmicks. When Alan and Phil must break into Chow’s penthouse, the filmmaker intermittently blacks out the screen to invoke the feeling of being under strobe lighting, rather than be burdened to conjure up what the deranged character’s den of sin would actually look like. His want to tie things up neatly (and fleetly) undermines what’s initially fascinating about the film, and the outcome is little more than a wedding-set coda and a joke involving Mr. Peanut that was stale before The Hangover was even a story outline.