"If it ain't broke, don't fix it." That's the approach director Todd Phillips takes in the follow-up to his hit morning-after comedy The Hangover, moving the story halfway around the world to Thailand but otherwise employing the same formula that earned the first film nearly a half-billion dollars. A surprisingly exact replica of that formula, in fact -- making The Hangover: Part II feel less like a sequel and more like a remake. The result is a cinematic illustration of the law of diminishing returns, in which more money, more exotic locales, more crazy situations and more Mike Tyson all fuel a familiar carnival of abasement. And as at any carnival, the rides just aren't as much fun on the second go-round.
Once again, there's a wedding, this time for Stu (Ed Helms), who is marrying a Thai-American woman whose wealthy parents insist that the festivities take place at a picturesque island resort in her homeland. Once again, despite Stu's best efforts to ensure disaster won't strike -- he stages his "bachelor party" at a sedate IHOP brunch before the guys even depart for Thailand -- a pharmaceutical-induced haze causes Stu, his crass buddy Phil (Bradley Cooper) and the socially inept man-child Alan (Zach Galifianakis) to wake up two days before the wedding with no idea what happened the night before.
And once again, a member of the previous evening's party is missing. Not Doug (Justin Bartha), the missing groom of The Hangover, who'll turn out to have gone back to his hotel room and missed the night's debauchery entirely. This time it's Teddy (Mason Lee), the teen-prodigy brother of Stu's bride-to-be. All that's left of him in the seedy Bangkok hotel room where the guys find themselves is his finger, still encircled by his Stanford class ring.
It's not that Part II is bad, exactly. If The Hangover had never existed, this movie might feel funnier than it does, if not quite as freshly hilarious. They're both detective stories at their core -- with the three men following the clues in an attempt to piece together a lost night and find a friend, with the ticking time bomb of the approaching nuptials hanging always over their heads -- and it's the surprises of their investigative discoveries that fuel the comedy.
But without varying the structure, Phillips paints himself into a corner. If surprise and incongruity are the cornerstones of comedy, knowing in advance the essence of what's coming next undercuts the humor. Without many structural surprises to exploit, Phillips is forced to make the details more outlandish. Instead of having a tooth knocked out, Stu wakes up with a facial tattoo; instead of merely being socially awkward, Alan seems abusive and almost dangerously deranged; instead of finding a tiger in their bathroom, they end up keeping company with a cigarette-smoking drug-mule monkey with a penchant for biting genitalia. And instead of accidentally marrying a hooker with a heart of gold, Stu manages to ... well, the outcome of that particular upped ante is perhaps best left undescribed.
The situations still have some laughs left in them, and Helms, Cooper, and Galifianakis (with a solid assist from Ken Jeong, reprising and building on his role as the oddball gangster Chow) still share the comic rapport that made the original such fun.
But the jokes feel strained where once they felt easy, over-reaching to compensate for the structural laziness of a film that has no identity of its own. There might not have been anything broken for Phillips to fix, but even the sharpest blade gets dull with overuse -- and without the whetstone of innovation, The Hangover: Part II just doesn't cut it.