Zach Galifianakis, Bradley Cooper, Justin Bartha, and Ed Helms in The Hangover Part IITHE HANGOVER PART II

Todd Phillips' The Hangover Part II is the sequel to the director's box-office smash from the summer of 2009, and it's just like the original.

Let me re-punctuate that: It is just. Like. The original.

I've seen plenty of sequels to hit comedies that felt lazy or tired or pointless (and even a few that were pretty sharp). But I'm not sure I've ever seen a comedic follow-up that felt as panicked as The Hangover Part II; you'd almost think that filming took place at gunpoint, with Phillips and co-screenwriters Scot Armstrong and Craig Mazin ordered not to deviate from the original's formula one iota, or bang! Substitute Bangkok for Vegas, a monkey for an infant, and a Mike Tyson tat for a missing tooth, and the new film is a carbon copy of its predecessor, though with one glaring difference: The new film is barely any fun.

Why would it be? Though it's easy to have forgotten in the two years since it debuted, The Hangover's chief appeal was surprise. Not just in the plotting, which was surprising enough, but it the memorable comic performances of actors who hadn't yet enjoyed breakthrough roles in movies: Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, Zach Galifianakis, and (for those who like that sort of thing) Ken Jeong. Without those elements of the unexpected, though - and without the spectacularly quotable non sequiturs provided by original Hangover authors Jon Lucas and Scott Moore - The Hangover Part II is just intensely tiresome, a "dangerous" comedy that plays it all too safe. Ordering that they empty their pockets in the hopes of figuring out what happened during their debaucherous night out, Cooper says to his buddies, "You know the drill." Yes, Bradley. We all know the drill.

In truth, it would be hard to bitch about the movie if it merely lifted its precursor's hook, in which the film's amnesiac leads (straight man Cooper, apoplectic Helms, and loco naïf Galifianakis) try to reconstruct events from a bachelor party gone haywire. That is, after all, why we're at The Hangover Part II in the first place. And you can feel the giggly excitement in the audience when our heroic trio - visiting Thailand on the eve of Helms' wedding - awakens in a squalid Bangkok apartment, dehydrated and bleary-eyed, and can't remember how Galifianakis' head got shaved, or what Jeong's coke-snorting Mr. Chow is doing there, or why there's a Capuchin dangling from the ceiling.

Yet you can feel the crowd's collective enthusiasm beginning to wane as soon as the gents hit the streets, once again in search of a fourth party member - Helms' 16-year-old future brother-in-law, played by Mason Lee - who's gone strangely missing. (It was Justin Bartha's groom-to-be who vanished in the original, and the actor returns to the role here, just as inconsequentially as before.) The auditorium's energy continues to collapse with the arrival of what appears to be another eccentric gangster à la Mr. Chow, this one portrayed by a bellowing, unamusing Paul Giamatti. And in addition to the all-too-recognizable car chases and sexually outré encounters and climactic race to get to the wedding on time, boredom sets in through the film's leads being given absolutely nothing to do that they didn't already do, and with far more wit (and better lines), in the last outing. Helms shrieks, and Galifianakis does his medicated-teddy-bear number, and Cooper drops the "F" bomb into every sentence, and there's no spontaneity or performance joy behind any of it. (The film is such a beat-for-beat reprise of The Hangover that there's even a repeat of the bit where Cooper and Helms laugh, and then stop, and then laugh again at one of Galifianakis' grosser routines; instead of a masturbating baby, it involves that monkey and a water bottle, one strategically placed under an elderly monk's robe.)

Perhaps due to the lack of narrative inspiration, Phillips' timing seems curiously off throughout The Hangover Part II - shots are continually held several beats longer than necessary - and the poverty witnessed in the Bangkok locales seems to have negatively affected both the film's spirit, which is distractingly dour, and its photography, which is ugly as hell. (The movie is like a slapstick Midnight Express.) I'm also not sure that the much-discussed cigarette-smoking monkey - a happening accomplished, apparently, through CGI - was a worthwhile comic gambit, as those at my screening didn't seem entertained by the sight so much as incredibly off-put.

Cannily, the filmmakers at least usurped one element from the original that the audience is alive to; the end-credit photo montage, which fills in the blanks on the intentional plot holes, delivers the joyously appalled laughs that you'd been hoping for from the rest of the film. (Too bad we have to wait 95 minutes for it.) And there's even one honest-to-God original idea on display, when a flashback reveals just how Galifianakis sees himself and his "Wolf Pack" brethren, and why he views Mason Lee's tagging along as such a threat.

Yet through the whole of this repetitive, cynical, deeply unfunny outing, there's only one other moment that boasts the slightest bit of cleverness. In it, Helms picks up a guitar and performs his own take on Billy Joel's "Allentown," his lyrics detailing the latest fine mess that Galifianakis' Alan has gotten the gang into. In context, the song parody makes no sense at all - a lighthearted musical respite, at that juncture, is the last thing these characters should be involved in - but it's certainly a welcome break from all the forced mayhem. Personally, I'm betting that the ditty was something Helms came up with during a break in shooting, a goofy little lark that amused Phillips so much he found a place for it in the film. If that's the case, I really wish there were more on-screen antics just like it; I can only imagine that breaks in shooting yielded far more genuine mirth than anything found in The Hangover Part II.


Kung Fu PandaKUNG FU PANDA 2

For an example of how a sequel doesn't have to be wholly beholden to its forebear, I direct you instead to Kung Fu Panda 2. I'd happily direct you there regardless. I enjoyed the original just fine, but positively adored this follow-up, which finds Jack Black's Po protecting his Chinese citizenry from Gary Oldman's malevolent peacock, and which is so beautifully designed, hysterical, and unexpectedly touching that it's easily my new favorite of all of Dreamworks' animated endeavors.

The directors of animated features rarely get the credit (or blame) they're due, yet there can be no ignoring the extraordinary finesse of Kung Fu Panda 2 helmer Jennifer Yuh Nelson, who keeps the tone confidently vacillating between sincerity and slapstick spoof, and whose compositions are both grandly imagined and, at times, brilliantly funny. (One quick, overhead shot of Po and his animal-warrior friends in a Chinese-dragon outfit, "devouring" enemies on a marketplace street, delivers such a perfect visual allusion to Pac-Man that you want to applaud.) And while animated-feature writers are similarly, routinely ignored, a special shout-out must go to this film's Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger, whose consistently snappy one-liners and character comedy dovetail with their surprisingly trenchant plot and character exposition. Whoever would've thought a Kung Fu Panda sequel could be this thematically rich, and this narratively satisfying? (The movie, with its haunting final image, leaves you all but begging for the immediate arrival of Kung Fu Panda 3.)

It's all still a tad too slight to reach Pixar-at-its-peak greatness, but there was almost no end to what I loved here: Black's soulfully silly awesomeness; the high-comic vocal contributions of Dustin Hoffman, James Hong, David Cross, and (best of all) Oldman and Michelle Yeoh, whose peacock-versus-goat squabbles are witheringly funny; the amazingly choreographed chases, which suggest the view from a series of whiplash-inducing Asian roller coasters. Plus, the sweet and rather moving subplot in which our butt-kicking panda discovers (gasp!) that he's actually not the natural child of Hong's restaurateur goose. I had a great time at Kung Fu Panda 2, and perhaps never a better one than when Po's squawking, adoptive pop explained how he - and we - were fortunate enough to make the cuddly bear's acquaintance. "There was no note," says the goose, with a tear, when telling the plus-sized panda of his doorstep arrival in a basket. "Of course, you could have eaten it."

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