One night in Bangkok

The wolfpack is back for The Hangover Part II.

As you probably expected, The Hangover Part II is, structurally, a near-copy of its predecessor: The same three friends wake up in a state of groggy confusion, unable to remember the events of the previous night that led them to their present situation, and missing a key member of their entourage. While this reliance on formula would certainly be little more than a crutch for less imaginative filmmakers, director Todd Phillips (Old School, Bittersweet Motel) and his game cast return to make a film that succeeds in being an interesting, sufficiently amusing diversion. Within the context of a lackluster start to the summer movie season, and considering the formal restrictions the film places on itself, that's strong praise.

Phillips, the screenwriters (of which he is one) and his actors breezily riff on what is essentially the same melody as that of the first Hangover. But it's the changes in notes and the way in which they're played that make this sequel an entertaining film, when it could have easily been tired and derivative.

Like the original, The Hangover Part II is a cut above the standard Hollywood comedy because its humor derives naturally from its characters' personalities and their circumstances. These are fully-formed human beings, not one-dimensional representations of traits or attitudes. While the film as a whole is predictable, the individual beats are what make it distinct and enjoyable. To note just one example, Stu's reworking of a Billy Joel song while traveling along a river is sublime comedy.

This time out, the boys are off to Thailand, where Stu is set to marry his new girlfriend. (Yes, they're going to be late to the wedding. Again.) Despite their best efforts to avoid a repeat of their Vegas misadventure, a night on the beach leads to the trio awakening in a seedy Bangkok hotel, where they find a scene-stealing monkey and a severed finger. From that point, their mission is to navigate an unfamiliar city and find Stu's bride-to-be's younger brother, a teenager who has gone missing.

Think about the premise of the Hangover movies too long and it becomes nearly impossible to suspend the disbelief required to accept that three individuals could embark a night of epic misadventure and debauchery while losing nearly every memory of their actions the following day. But setting the film in Bangkok works to its advantage in at least two ways. For one, it lends authenticity to the boys' feelings of helplessness, despair and disorientation. The city also becomes a character unto itself, an overcrowded, grimy urban cityscape that one imagines is a dark wonderland even for those who make it their home.

To the credit of the three leads, Phil (Bradley Cooper), Stu (Ed Helms) and Alan (Zach Galifianakis) are presented as flesh-and-blood characters, not one-dimensional stand-ins whose only purpose is to utter rote dialogue that telegraphs every punch line. Played by a less talented actor, Alan would be an insufferable buffoon. As acted by Galifianakis, he's a strange man-child who frustrates, endears and earns our sincere sympathies. Galifianakis portrays Alan as simultaneously dim, unhinged and tightly wound, lacking the self-edit mode most adults make use of in social situations, and determined to jealously preserve the bond with the other two members of his "wolfpack."

While there are plenty of hearty belly laughs scattered throughout the film, The Hangover Part II hits a few dry patches. And the "I can't believe this is happening to us again" moments of dialogue temporarily break the movie's spell. But even when the chuckles aren't there, The Hangover Part II is at least interesting, in large part because of its fearlessness in pushing its characters into areas well outside their (and our) comfort zones.

Amidst the noisy and tiresome spectacle of would-be summer blockbusters, The Hangover Part II is like much-needed downtime in your favorite dive bar. It's pretty grungy, but for a couple of hours, you'll feel right at home.

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