Let’s get this out of the way: yes, The Hangover Part 2 is more of the same. The title implies (correctly) that it can be viewed as merely an extension of the earlier film, as opposed to a brand-new one, and it hits every beat in its (already-worn) formula succinctly. If you didn’t much care for The Hangover, that sentence should function as a perfectly serviceable review for you, and anything else I have to say is merely window-dressing.

Not that there were a whole lot of people that didn’t care for The Hangover. The raunchy comedy ran away with 2009’s box-office, shot Zach Galifianakis and Ed Helms into the mainstream stratosphere, and did so with an impressively subversive undercurrent and a high concept that are largely lost on mainstream comedies. I even recall hearing some vague Oscar buzz, although without art-house affectation or broad social issues, it didn’t stand a chance. That film’s premise was deceptively simple: the attendees of a Vegas bachelor party wake up in a trashed hotel room, sans groom, and must piece together the shards of their evening in order to track him down. The inevitable sequel wisely doesn’t stray from what made the first film work; it may reek of deja vu to both theatre audiences and on-screen characters, but with three wildly different leads with limitless chemistry and a director and screenwriter willing to get positively grimy in the service of hilarity, The Hangover Part 2 is both agreeably familiar and screamingly funny.

This time around, the first film’s groom-to-be, Doug (Justin Bartha), goes the duration of the film utterly unscathed. However, perpetual sweet-guy Stu (Ed Helms, brilliant – but more on that later) is now shaking off the psychological scars of their first lost weekend enough to marry a beautiful woman with rich parents. It seems like everything’s on the right track – but after Doug insists on an invite for his borderline-psychotic man-child of a brother-in-law, Alan (Galifianakis), and would-be party animal Phil (Bradley Cooper) insists on at least one beer hoisted in brotherhood (in lieu of the bachelor party Stu aggressively refuses), our lovable trio wakes up in a fleabag Bangkok motel, in pain and physically scarred (a shaved head for Alan, an intricate facial tattoo for Stu). And, of course, the variable element of the familiar plot: this time they’ve lost Stu’s brother-in-law to-be, brilliant med student Teddy.

Look, I could point out the obvious parallels – some of the beats of this story are simply transplanted from the earlier one, copied, pasted, and with the find-and-replace feature utilized to create faux-variance. But I’m not here to nitpick – as a comedy, is The Hangover Part 2 funny? It sure is. In fact, it’s the Hatchet 2 of comedy, a film that relies on the goodwill engendered by its predecessor, but with an extra envelope-pushing quotient. In Hatchet 2, the body count was quadrupled, the murders staged with gusto and in increasingly over-the-top fashion; here, the laughs, many of which came at the expense of remarkable physical harm done to the principal characters, carry an extra “you’re kidding me” factor. Bangkok is a gritty urban hell-hole here – director Todd Phillips has created an incredibly atmospheric movie, one where every blow is felt, where the sweltering heat feels real (in a way that hasn’t been convincingly illustrated on-screen since, what, Body Heat thirty years ago?), and the threat of imminent danger lurks around every corner. Of course, since this is The Hangover Part 2, a sequel to a film in which three leads suffered a remarkably brutal tire iron beating and it was all played for laughs, the imminent danger doesn’t hold too much weight – one of the headliners shrugging off a gunshot wound seems par for the course, almost satirical in this light.

I don’t want to ruin the jokes for you, so the less said about the plot, the better. Suffice it to say that a few bombs are dropped, and the characters react with the requisite amount of shock. But part of the fun of the movie is unraveling the story, plus I feel a little bit grimy relaying any of this film’s goings-on, particularly the stuff that involves a cute little monkey with a penchant for penis-play. (Oops, there’s one cat out of the bag.)

What I can say is that these characters look great on these actors. Two films in, and they’ve already managed to form a palpable bond, where the nature of every connection is apparent without being spelled out, and every character motivation makes sense within this universe. Bradley Cooper is SO GOOD at this role it’s a shame he doesn’t play this sort of character more often; his character is imbued with complexity so subtle it almost doesn’t register when he’s being an abrasive dick, but his quirks shine through, and the smaller beats of his persona unravel nicely. Plus, his quick lines are great – the film tends to make Helms’ and Galifianakis’ lines miniature events, but Phil’s pass by almost unnoticed until you stop to think about how funny they are and how perfectly Cooper delivers them. Helms, meanwhile, was a breakout star of the first film, banking a lot on his clueless “Office” character Andy Bernard’s mannerisms – mostly sweet affability offset by a penchant for self-destruction. As perhaps this film’s central character, though, Helms acquits himself admirably, banking on increasingly funny reaction shots* and sputtering indignation to bring the funny. Helms achieves a sort of poetry in the art of the reaction shot – a scene in which his mild-mannered dentist is forced to examine a gunshot wound close-up is worth a spit-take or two.

And what to say about Zach Galifianakis? A beloved figure in alternative stand-up, Galifianakis’s non sequitur turns of phrase and distinctive physical appearance made him a cult icon mere minutes after The Hangover was released. Part 2 ramps up the weirdness quotient, hanging on every oddball quirk and left-field line of dialog, making his Alan a rarity in modern mainstream comedy: a character included specifically to throw a wrench into the plans of the more photogenic protagonists that still manages to be a fleshed-out, interesting character in his own right. Sure, Alan is a mess of quirks and neuroses, but in a particularly inspired sequence about halfway through Part 2, Phillips and Galifianakis give us a dream sequence that borders on comedic transcendence, giving us brilliant insight into Alan’s (literally) childlike mind. Every one of Alan’s motivations then becomes abundantly apparent, lending the character depth beyond the hirsute man-boy that popularized the term “wolfpack”. Galifianakis is borderline genius in the role – like, savant genius, to the point where you stop laughing long enough to cock your head and really reflect on his actions and why he’s saying what he’s saying. It’s in his completely convincing crying scenes; it’s in the way our heart briefly breaks for this unrepentant screw-up as he reacts to Phil telling him they’re no longer friends. Galifianakis is the real deal, someone so deeply funny that he can be the breakout star of a film like this, but someone willing to be so subversively dark that he can almost cause you to shed real-ass, genuine tears. Witness his performance in Phillips’ Hangover intermission, Due Date**: Galifianakis plays damaged supremely well, and playing against an incorrigibly bitter and scathing Robert Downey Jr., he manages to be hilarious and heartbreaking in one fell swoop. In a perfect world – and I mean this, without a trace of irony – Galifianakis would be prepping his second Oscar speech.

The bit players are great, although they pale in comparison to the headliners. Ken Jeong has a bigger role this time around – the film justifies his presence by saying that his international criminal Mr. Chow bonded with Galifianakis’ Alan after the events of the last film, and so, after the gang once again ingested a mind-altering substance against their will, Mr. Chow was called in to get the party started – but I think he was better served in the original as an intermittent scene stealer. Chow’s original entrance (and exit) to the film borders on brilliant the way it subverts audience expectations, but Jeong’s manic shtick, while admittedly funny, used to be funnier when he’d pop up out of nowhere with bizarre dialog and affectations. His role here simply smacks of overkill – same with the stunt casting of Bryan Callen as a completely different (and Rob Schneider-worthy ethnic caricature) character than in the first film. Still, Paul Giamatti shows up in the film’s final third to provide a foil and scream at our characters, and that’s always fun. Paul Giamatti is a terrific and capable character actor, and it’s nice to see a dramatic actor inserted into a comedy who plays it straight. If I have any true issue with the supporting cast, it’s Justin Bartha – it seems like he’s been shoehorned out of the plot to make way for the core trio, and that’s a shame, given Bartha’s gift for comic timing. I feel like including Doug in the plot a little bit more would have worked out nicely. (Perhaps being the best thing in the National Treasure movies doesn’t quite hold the cinematic prestige I’d hoped.)

So yes, it’s more of the same. But The Hangover Part 2 as an extension of the previous outing works nicely if you liked this plotline in its first iteration. The humor is a little more subversive, the laughs a little more shock-oriented, and the chuckles bred more out of familiarity than out of originality; but the fact remains that, if this is your thing (and it’s damn sure mine), you’ll find a lot to love about Part 2.

Grade: A-

*Long ago, I came up with the idea to string together an entire feature-length reel of Nicolas Cage’s wackiest on-screen moments, entitled “Nicolas Cage Reacts To Things”. Watching this film, I feel like a sequel/spin-off entitled “Ed Helms Reacts To Things”, would be every bit as hilarious. The difference, of course, is that the Helms reactions scenes are funny on purpose.

**If you haven’t seen Due Date, please do yourself a favor and check it out. It’s an absolute unheralded masterpiece, a sublimely dark piece of comedic art on the level of Jody Hill’s ingenious (and similarly overlooked) Observe and Report.

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