What makes a good sequel?
Steven Zeitchik wrote an interesting piece earlier this week in The Los Angeles Times crediting the box office success of “The Hangover Part II” to its “lack of originality.” In essence, he says that the most successful comedy sequels are the ones that hew closest to their predecessors. His article begins, “The raised eyebrows started pretty much the moment the trailer hit the Web.” When the trailer for “The Hangover Part II” hit the Web at the beginning of April, I wrote the following in a post about the often dubious use of the phrase “Part 2” in sequel titles:
“The trailer makes it look less like a continuation than a rehash. The location is different but the characters, narrative gimmick, and Ed Helms facial disfiguration gags are all the same. That could still make an interesting sequel if the finished film plays up the nightmarish, almost ‘Twilight Zone’-esque quality of these men’s lives. Will it acknowledge the fact that they seem almost karmically doomed to repeat the same awful misadventures over and over again? I kind of hope so.”
With the movie now in wide release, it’s clear that while my hopes were dashed, the trailer was an accurate depiction of the finished film. If it was inaccurate at all, it was in not fully representing just how faithful “The Hangover Part II” is to “The Hangover.” Contrary to what star Zach Galifianakis said in interviews prior to production about the sequel having “nothing to do with the bachelor party,” and that the scenario would involve the Wolf Pack getting “kind of kidnapped,” it absolutely does and they absolutely don’t. In fact, almost every single plot point from the first film appears in the second one: a forgotten night of debauchery, a friend missing, altercations with drug dealers, sex with prostitutes, incongruous animal sidekicks, and Mike Tyson.
Given the extreme degree to which it recycles elements of the first film, you could almost make the case for “The Hangover Part II” on the grounds that it is an experimental film. As I sit here writing, I’m actually having trouble thinking of elements from the first “Hangover” that don’t appear in the sequel; the only one jumping immediately to mind is the fact that Ed Helms’ character doesn’t fall for the hooker he sleeps with this time around. The following video mashup does a nice job of illustrating the similarities, by placing the aforementioned “Hangover Part II” trailer side-by-side with corresponding images from the first film.
As Zeitchik notes, most of the critical discourse around “The Hangover Part II” has focused around the borderline shocking degree to which it is just Mad Libs version of “Part I.” A quick scan of the film’s Rotten Tomatoes page reveals almost as much repetition as you’ll find in the film itself. “I can’t believe how precisely everything does happen again, except that what was fresh and surprising in Las Vegas turns rancid and predictable in Bangkok,” says Joe Morgenstern of The Wall Street Journal. “Trade out Las Vegas for Bangkok, a tiger for a monkey, a lactating hooker for a trannie stripper, a missing tooth for a face tattoo, and you’ve got Todd Phillips’s rote, dispiriting replica of his own surprise smash hit,” says Eric Hynes from The Village Voice. In his review, Richard Roeper proclaims that “rarely has a sequel been so lazy, obvious, such a flat out copy of the first film.”
The film certainly is a copy. But is it really that rare? “The Hangover Part II” reminded me of a lot of horror sequels, particularly long-running and heavily codified franchises like “Friday the 13th” or “Final Destination.” Genre connoisseurs come back to these movies time and time again for their faithful adherence to formula: Jason Voorhees will come back from the dead, he will wear his hockey mask, and he will kill people in incredibly violent and incredibly creative ways. True, there have been some variations, but most are cosmetic; flinging Jason into outer space so he can slaughter hotties there isn’t that much different than transplanting “The Hangover” from Vegas to Bangkok. When horror sequels stray too far from their core, they’re usually flops. See “Halloween III,” the only movie in the series that didn’t feature Michael Myers.
Why are there different standards for horror and comedy sequels? You can’t say that comedy is different from horror because jokes depend on surprise — so do horror films. We watch great comedies over and over, savoring the stars’ delivery, memorizing our favorite jokes. I couldn’t count the number of times I’ve seen “Blazing Saddles” or “The Naked Gun.” Earlier this week I was laughing out loud at “Stripes” a film I’ve seen many times. Repetition and ritualization is part of the fun of great comedy. So what’s the problem with repeating and ritualizing it in the form of a movie like “The Hangover Part II?”
I agree: the fact that Phil, Stu, and Alan undergo the exact same misadventures is impossible and ridiculous. But it’s no more impossible or ridiculous than John McClane getting into three more days just as bad as his worst day ever in the first “Die Hard.” Isn’t it weird that terrorists love to attack the things in closest proximity to John McClane? Do we care? I certainly don’t; I just like seeing Bruce Willis badass it up.
What we’re talking about here is the fundamental nature of sequels. Should sequels be bold, original undertakings or should they provide the audience with more of what they liked in the first movie? Is a good sequel like or unlike the movie that spawned it? This, I think, is a matter of personal opinion and taste. Some people love “Evil Dead II” which is so similar to “The Evil Dead” that it’s almost a remake. Some people prefer “Army of Darkness” which transposes the series’ hero to medieval times and replaces most of the horror with Three Stooges-esque physical comedy.
“The Hangover” had a very clever premise and a unique comic mystery structure. You could argue that its uniqueness was what made it so successful. In that case, maybe the only true sequel to “The Hangover” is one as unique as the first film — say, the boys have another night out on the town but this time they get brutally murdered and it’s up to their girlfriends and wives to solve the crime. Or you might argue that what made “The Hangover” a hit was the particular chemistry of the actors — Bradley Cooper’s smarm, Ed Helms’ spoiled innocence, Galifianakis’ inspired idiocy. We loved spending time with those guys in that booze and pill-fueled fog. In that case, “The Hangover Part II” is the perfect sequel, since it reunites the entire cast and provides them a forum to do the things we enjoyed watching them do the first time around.
Do I think “The Hangover Part II” is a good movie? Not really. Do I think it’s a good sequel? After a lot of thought, I’ve decided that it is. It is not a great sequel on the level of “The Godfather Part II” or “The Empire Strikes Back” — sequels that truly continue the stories and expand the universes of their first films — but it is a satisfying one on its own terms. You might subjectively say that the jokes aren’t funny; I thought a lot of them were (I also appreciated the fact that the movie was a lot bleaker and sadder than the first “Hangover,” and probably as close as I’ll ever get to my dreams of “Twilight Zone”-y nightmarishness). No, it’s not an original comedic vision. But it delivers what it promises: more of the same. And since it’s already grossed almost $150 million in just one week of release, outstanding for an R-rated comedy, I think you can expect a lot more of the same in the future.