Welcome to the weekend of unnecessary sequels overstocked with Asian clichés: The Hangover Part II and Kung Fu Panda 2 3D. (Someone please tell me, what Hollywood marketing wizard decides if a sequel is going to get a simple number or a Roman numeral?) It’s taken me a while to get around to posting my views on these movies. Blame it on post-Cannes jet lag. Plus a lingering hangover from the experience of seeing Hangover II. I’d caught the Panda sequel weeks ago in Cannes, an hour after arriving the day before the festival. It wasn’t actually in the festival; a studio junket for the DreamWorks picture was piggy-backed onto the front end, with Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt and Dustin Hoffman doing press. Although I got a kick out of the first Kung Fu Panda, the sequel left me cold. Though perhaps we can blame that on pre-Cannes jet lag. (Wary of turning into one of those hateful critics, I’m always looking for excuses.)
The Hangover Part II answers this riddle: how can a movie be a doting copy of the original and have the opposite effect? Easy. The Hangover zoomed in under the radar, took everyone by surprise, and became the top-grossing R-rated comedy in Hollywood history, earning almost half a billion dollars worldwide. (Judd Apatow, eat your heart out.) Commercial common sense demands a sequel, which is guaranteed make a fortune no matter what I, or anyone else, has to say about it. But instead of surprise, we have predictability. The original walked a high wire between wit and bad taste. In the sequel, bad taste overwhelms wit. Yes, we’re all eager to hang out with those boys from The Hangover. Me too. But the movie proves that the best experiences should not be repeated, and you should never try going to the same party twice.
Switching the scene-of-the-crime locale from Las Vegas to Bangkok, the filmmakers have tried their best to stick to the original template. A different guy is getting married—Stu the uptight dentist (Ed Helms) is wedding the daughter of a Thai tycoon. But the same flashback structure is employed, right down to raunchy cellphone photos that play over the closing credits. Again the idiot savant, Alan (Zach Galifianakis), serves as the drug-dispatching agent of doom. But this time, the narrative takes forever to get it into gear, and the pacing never seems to find its rhythm. Galifianakis’s role has been amplified from a graceful conceit to a thundering gag. And what I found most offensive about the first film—racist Asian caricature—has been turned into the main event. Chow (Ken Jeong), the manic and slippery criminal, has a much larger role. And, in fact, he steals the movie with his performance. But when the comedy’s crowd-pleasing payoff is a sex-tourist-lite excursion into the demimonde of Bangkok ladyboys, this starts to look like movie that’s pandering to its audience, not outraging it. Oh yes, there’s an inevitable appearance by Mike Tyson, which is cringe-worthy. And Paul Giamatti makes an inexplicable appearance in a thankless minor role.
Maybe I’m over-reacting. There is a certain decompression requiring in going from the high altar of Cannes (where screenings are hushed reverential events) to the chatty popcorn pit of the multiplex. And I have to admit I was put off by the lout across the aisle, an aging rocker with his belly spilling out of a faded Genesis t-shirt who was laughing like a hyena in heat at absolutely everything. It wasn’t normal laughter. It was a scary, gutteral animal sound. The sound of man who didn’t just want to watch a movie. He wanted to be in the Wolf Pack, a card-carrying member. To hear him laugh was like being in the same room with someone having sex with himself.
So don’t trust me on this one. By all means, go to The Hangover Part II, and do your best to enjoy the party. But you might hate yourself in the morning.
Kung Fu Panda 2 3D
The ironies abound. The plot of this sequel hinges on a quest by our newly empowered Panda Dragon Warrior (voiced by Jack Black) to master something called inner peace. That’s what the wise old monk (voiced by Dustin Hoffman) is trying to get through his thick head. But Hoffman’s character gets reduced to a virtual cameo, a framing device, and while the movie preaches the much vaunted inner peace, it’s more slavishly devoted to slapstick action than the original, at the expense of character and story. The story, for what it’s worth, involves a villain (Gary Oldman) whose use of diabolical weapons threatens to render martial arts obsolete. Which offers lots of opportunities for fireballs in a martial arts movie.
To their credit, the Furious Five are rich characters—Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (Lucy Liu) and Crane (David Cross). The Tigress gets the lion’s share of screen time as she fights circles around the Panda—another Jolie dominatrix puncturing the hubris of an inadequate male challenger. Whether or not that’s because the sequel was direted by a woman, Asian animator Jennifer Yuh, I wouldn’t want to hazard a guess. On the plus side, the martial arts in this sequel have perhaps more visual panache than in the original, and there are some stunning grace notes of classical Asian art that make you long for more. But the 3D seems largely gratuitous. This movie offers further proof that the immersive medium of 3D is ill-suited for the genre that’s been most compelled to adopt it: hectic, fast-moving action. Bring on the inner peace.