“It happened again.” Of course it did. Following the huge success of The Hangover, the sequel was inevitable. And as Phil (Bradley Cooper) is on the phone with his wife Stephanie (Gillian Vigman), not quite explaining where he is, you can understand her exasperation.
“What is wrong with you three!?” she asks, her voice low and her face twisted. While Phil and his buddies Stu (Ed Helms) and Alan (Zach Galifianakis) are trying to sort out their recent past, Stephanie’s left with trying to stall the wedding party, waiting impatiently in the room behind her. This time, it’s Stu’s fiancée Lauren (Jamie Chung), along with her deeply disapproving father Fohn (Nirut Sirichanya), who are wondering where he is. And this time, they’re wondering in Thailand, because Fohn and his wife were born there, and might or might not feel some affection for some unspecific traditions. And oh yes… because Bangkok is the optimum place for Stu to up the ante on his tendency to fall instantly “in love” with prostitutes.
Where before Stu’s object of affection was Roller Girl (Heather Graham), a cute blond with a baby she’s breastfeeding, now he learns that his night’s exploits involved a more disturbing liaison, one that suggests, in his phrasing, that “I’ve got a demon in me.” His route to that revelation is the film’s plot, such as it is. More accurately, it’s a series of episodes—raucous, bruising, and not so surprising—that explain how these three guys have once again lost someone they’re supposed to be looking after, and how they’ve come to share a bond that no fiancée or wife or girlfriend will ever understand.
That bond is premised on myth of the bachelor party, the not so secret world not so exposed by the first film. As The Hangover Part II begins, Stu and Phil, along with Doug (Justin Bartha), the guy they lost in Vegas, they’re visiting with Alan, reluctantly inviting him along to Thailand for Stu’s wedding. This doesn’t mean they expect another party. Stu claims he’s “still putting the broken pieces of my psyche back together” following the last one, and so he’s determined not to be drinking alcohol in the vicinity of inept booze-spiker Alan anytime soon. But you expect the party, as well as the wolfpack’s reunion and another bout of spiking, and so Alan must come along.
As before, Alan is resolutely tone-deaf, unable to see that his best friends in the world don’t actually like him, or that his antisocial behavior is at all offensive. This time his initial target is Lauren’s 16-year-old brother Teddy (Mason Lee), already pre-med at Stanford and a cello prodigy to boot. Because Fohn adores him and Lauren worries for him (he doesn’t have enough fun, and so Stu should take him out for a drink), and also because Teddy himself is awfully sweet and compliant, he’s the ideal object to lose in Bangkok—or, to lose to Bangkok. As more than one observer notes, once he’s been missing in the city overnight, “Bangkok’s got him.”
Like Doug before (and like Doug now, frankly, as he’s relegated to a couple of phone call scenes while the other boys are gallivanting), Teddy is a non-character, the occasion for Stu, Phil, and Alan—and Mr. Chow (Ken Jeong) and a capuchin monkey in a vest adorned with a Rolling Stones tongue—to run around the city, where they encounter gangsters, drug dealers, pole dancers, transsexuals, and Buddhist monks. None of these adventures is especially memorable, but then again, that may be the point. You can only go forward if you’re able to forget the past. “That’s what we do,” Phil philosophizes. “We forget.”
At this point, Phil’s trying to soothe Stu, the dentist who’s feeling radically redefined after learning what he’s done the night before. “I’m never going back, I’m getting off the hamster wheel,” Stu whines, imagining he’ll start a new business in Bangkok: “Teeth cleaning with a happy ending.” Because he’s inside The Hangovers, he can’t see this is exactly what he’ll never have, because he will never get off the hamster wheel. On one level, this is the plight of movie franchise players (Jack Sparrow and Tony Stark can’t seem to get off, and Harry Potter only managed it by outgrowing his source material, for now). On another level, it’s the existential situation of the bachelor partiers, related in their way to the Apatow factory workers: they can’t “grow up.”
As this is their fate, it speaks also to assumptions about viewers, that they’re satisfied with a wheel that takes them nowhere surprising, repeating a semblance of plot points and a series of gags, some antes upped (bigger explosions, more daunting sexual adventures, this time featuring more references to penises, mostly “Asiatic”) and most consequences trivial). It matters little whether viewers forget or remember their previous experiences with such tentpole events. What matters is the spinning. And the turning. And the coming back.