In 2009 The Hangover was a surprise hit, the key word there being "surprise." It wasn't just that nobody was expecting much out of this R-rated comedy starring three guys we'd barely heard of, but that every outrageous turn in the movie felt out of the blue, from the genius idea of setting the film a day after a wild night to the much-discussed closing credits showing us everything the guys had forgotten. Even the jokes and plot points that weren't so original had enough raunchy energy to fake it, and the movie was a hit not just because it was one of the funniest mainstream comedies in years, but was gutsy enough to be one of the weirdest too.
Which makes it a complete and utter mystery why they decided to retrace their steps on The Hangover Part II, not a continuation of the story as the title promises but a soulless and badly unfunny retread of everything that worked the first time. You'd think the slew of credited screenwriters had been forced to rush this out and just copy the original script as quickly as possible, but in fact more than a year passed between The Hangover's smash success and the start of production on this sad mess. It's hard to know who to blame for the idiotic decision to give audiences exactly what they liked the first time and expect a change in location to make enough of a difference, but the result doesn't just feel like a callow cash grab, but an insult to the audience who would pay for this pale, lifeless imitation.
It's almost not worth summing up the plot, both because you've seen all of this before in a different city, and because too many details would spoil the handful of jokes that do come as genuine, funny surprises. Phil (Bradley Cooper), Stu (Ed Helms) and Alan (Zach Galifianakis) are all back in more or less the same form, this time trekking off to Thailand for the wedding of Stu, who at the end of The Hangover was looking like'd make it work with Heather Graham's sweet hooker, but just two years later is engaged to equally sweet Lauren (Jamie Chung), whose parents insisted on a Thailand wedding. It's not worth speculating too much on why the switch happened, but it's more than a little icky that Chung is a full nine years younger than Helms, an age difference never explained because the movie is never too interested in her having a personality at all. Same goes for any other female character in the movie, or lack thereof, a complaint lobbed fairly at The Hangover that nobody even bothers to fix here.
The wedding is taking place at a lavish resort, but two days before the gang wakes up in a seedy Thai hotel, knowing they've misplaced Lauren's 16-year-old brother Teddy (Mason Lee) and somehow in the company of Ken Jeong's loudmouthed gangster from the previous film, Mr. Chow (Justin Bartha's Doug had the sense to sit the night out; at least the actor got a trip to Thailand out of the deal). Once again Stu, Alan and Phil try to piece together the previous night and find their missing friend; once again they wander through the dark underbelly of a given city, and once again any number of ludicrous complications, from a silent monk to an international arms detail, make it a difficult task. Unlike last time, though, none of it's all that funny, not just because the element of surprise is gone, but that the actors seem to be overcompensating for the lack of originality by dialing their characters up to 11. Cooper smirks and curses, Helms squawks and panics, Galifianakis utters non-sequiturs and pops out of his novelty T-shirts, all louder and less subtle than the first time; Jeong is an even bigger problem as Chow, a shrill character far more effective in small doses, or in this case probably none at all.
Todd Phillips directs with a slick, loose attitude that's perfectly in sync with the film's few moments of goofy debauchery, but his style still worked far better in the first film, which had an actual script to back it up. And neither he nor his marooned actors does a single thing to add imagination or spark to a sequel that seems actively disdainful of its audience, assuming we're so easy to please or so dumb that we won't notice there's nothing new here. The Hangover Part II is definitely not the first Hollywood sequel to try something so cynical, but based on the quality of what came first, is among the most disappointing.