The magical number of three helps account for the success of some of the important literary and cinematic trilogies — in literature, for example, the Oedipus cycle, Shakespeare's history plays about Henry IV and V, Dumas's volumes about the Three Musketeers, Dos Passos's "U.S.A.," Farrell's Studs Lonigan novels. In the cinema, the most obvious are the first three works in the "Star Wars" group, the adventures of Indiana Jones, and perhaps most memorable, the "Godfather" films. Too often, of course, trilogies explode into bloated franchises, like all the "Rocky" films, the rest of the "Star Wars" movies, and the innumerable remakes of dumb action and horror flicks.
On a perhaps lower level of significance, the wildly successful "The Hangover" of 2009 has now grown into a trilogy all its own, and as it turns out, not an especially good idea. The first movie, outrageously funny, shocking, raunchy, and quite cleverly plotted, belongs with some of the great anarchic guy flicks, like "Animal House" and "The Big Lebowski." The second, a lavish sequel set in Bangkok, exhibits a sad degeneration into sentimentality and decadence, while the newest, brilliantly titled "The Hangover Part III" —the Roman numerals certainly add a touch of class — simply demonstrates a failure of intelligence and imagination, with the added problem of an almost total lack of humor.
After an odd prologue showing a prison riot, with the weird Leslie Chow (Ken Jeong) breaking out, the movie proper opens with Alan (Zach Galifianakis), tooling down the freeway in his Mercedes convertible, laughing and screaming maniacally, while towing a giraffe in a trailer. He drives under a low bridge, which beheads the animal, triggering a multiple-vehicle crash and, soon after, his father's fatal heart attack. That beginning pretty much sums up the level of humor in the film — low, broad, crude, and violent.
After the funeral, at which Alan sings "Ave Maria" in an angelic soprano voice, then takes off his shirt and helps bury his father, once again the Wolfpack, especially Phil (Bradley Cooper) and Stu (Ed Helms), swings into action. The Wolfpack decides to take the manic simpleton Alan to some clinic in Arizona to change his childish ways and convince him to take his medications. On their way, however, a major thug named Marshall (John Goodman) ambushes them and announces a change of plans for the group, which establishes the rest of the silly plot.
Under the threat of death — Marshall kidnaps Alan's brother-in-law — the guys must locate Chow and find $21 million in gold bars that he stole from Marshall. They track Chow to Tijuana, then to Las Vegas, where the whole series began; their various encounters with Chow, who deceives and betrays them every time, constitute the source for the alleged comedy. The script plods along from incident to incident as if the several screenwriters were making it up as they went along, and somehow managing to do it without creating any laughs.
We know "Hangover Part III" is a comedy because it grows out of two previous comic pictures that employ the same cast; further, other people from those earlier flicks pop up, and the characters now and then refer to incidents in those movies, like Stu's face tattoo and his unfortunate amorous encounter with a lovely transsexual in Bangkok. It also ends in a wedding, the classic conclusion to comedies since the form began.
At the same time, the attempts at humor depend heavily on the decidedly non-comic device of brutal violence. In addition to the giraffe decapitation, the car wrecks, and the heart attack, the movie features three coldblooded murders, with one of the killers escaping all punishment and even achieving a kind of benevolence.
The cast behaves very much in the manner of the earlier flicks, i. e., with the bland stupidity of gulls and fools. Once again, Zach Galifianakis dominates, extracting every drop of sentiment out of the character of the lovable goof, growing ever more tiresome as the film proceeds.
Like its predecessors, the picture scooped up pots of dough over its opening weekend, which may prove that nothing succeeds like excess, or perhaps the value of that magic number after all — a sad commentary on contemporary film and the state of comedy.