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film review

From left, Justin Bartha, Zach Galfianakis, Ed Helms and Bradley Cooper in The Hangover Part III.WARNER BROTHERS PICTURES/The New York Times

"I told myself I would never go back."

Guys go out on the town, get roaring drunk, wake up with a hangover, can't remember what they did. If that doesn't sound like a billion-dollar global franchise to you, check the receipts – even Hollywood accountants can't fiddle those sorts of grosses. Of course, the first Hangover established the brand, earning big bucks because it had a clever reverse narrative and was actually pretty damn funny. So the second didn't have to be funny, and wasn't, but at least existed somewhere in the general vicinity of that borderless country known as Comedy. Part III doesn't, not even remotely, which makes it not just bad, but weirdly, fascinatingly bad. What exactly is this? Certainly a cash cow, definitely an exercise in cynicism, maybe even a cri de coeur from the self-hating principals. Whatever, a comedy it ain't.

"Do you even know what's going on?"

Consider, if you dare, the plot. Sorry to be the deliverer of sad news, but the hangover is entirely missing from Hangover III. There's no booze. Instead, in a yarn that appears to be swiped from a moribund heist flick, there is bullion, a whole lot of ill-gotten gold that our four returning dudes – Bradley Cooper, Zach Galifianakis, Ed Helms, Justin Bartha – are obliged to track down and give back to its villainous owner, without, as I mentioned, the aid of any alcoholic stimulants. That's one way of looking at the so-called plot. Another might be this: Four actors who got rich playing drunk are now chasing after more money sober. My advice is to forget the nonsensical text and focus on the more interesting subtext, which isn't funny either but does raise an intriguing question. Watch the faces of our fab four, especially Cooper's, and you'll see that question writ large: "Can I totally phone in a performance and still collect my bullion?"

"I got a plan, but you're not gonna like it."

The fascinatingly bad continues. Death abounds in this non-comedy. Many things die. Animals get killed; people get killed; needless to say, our patience gets thoroughly slaughtered. We arrive at the killing field early, when Galifianakis, whose man-child dominates the outing, is driving on the freeway. He's in a convertible that's pulling an open trailer on which stands an elegant giraffe. Car, driver, trailer, beautiful tall creature speed toward a low overpass when, splat, beauty is decapitated. The head literally rolls, whereupon, this being a foul-mouthed non-comedy, someone is made (more or less) to say: "He killed a giraffe. Who gives a damn?"

"You're not good for me."

A bunch of dead chickens, a dead daddy, a matched set of dead guard dogs and a couple of dead gangsters later, what seemed like a mere exercise in cynicism has morphed into a full-fledged marathon, all run under the fluttering banner of "Who gives a damn?"As long as that other animal, the sacred cash cow, is alive and healthy, nothing else matters. And at this billion-dollar juncture in the franchise, everyone involved here – director, writers, cast – knows that the cash cow doesn't require much in the way of maintenance. They don't need to be good, they don't need to be funny, they just need to be there.

"You just don't get it, do you?"

You may have noticed the italicized quotations scattered above. All are taken directly from the movie, admittedly lifted out of context. Yet these quotes and others much like them recur so often that it can't be coincidence, and so they seem to establish their own context, seem to be a kind of subliminal movie within the movie. That's when the self-hating cri de coeur is heard. I told myself I would never go back. You're not good for me. We sure aren't laughing, but you might have thought the principals were, at least on their way to the bank. But no. Amid all the slaughter here – that giraffe, our patience, the good name of entertainment – even the slaughterers sound worried about the blood on their hands. Culturally speaking, it's enough to drive you to drink, and hang the hangover.

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