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Politics at the Movies

“The Hangover II” and the queasiness of bromance

Reviewed by Malcolm Maclachlan

In 2001, San Francisco writer Ethan Waters caused a minor national stir with his New York Times Magazine piece asking the question: “Are friends the new family?” The premise, and that of his subsequent book, “Urban Tribes,” was how friends had filled in the voids once filled by family in an era when many people delay marriage and live far from the places they grew up.

This modern era seems to have had particular importance for men. While the culture has long celebrated lifelong friendships between women, there also seems to have been an idea that many men leave the crazed friends of their youth behind when the focus of their lives transition to work and family.

This tension, long noted in movie comedies and beer commercials, forms the central tension of “The Hangover” movies. Both films focus on a kind of bromance love triangle between a trio of guys who fit well-known types: the good-looking and fun-loving but kind-of-a-jerk Phil (Bradley Cooper), put-upon everyman Stu (Ed Helms), and Alan (Zack Galifianakis) as the man-child outcast freak whom is only included because his sister was marrying the fourth friend, Doug (Justin Bartha, who is kept on the sidelines in both films because he isn’t famous enough).

It worked in the brilliant first installment because each one had something to temper their extremes. Phil’s arrogance was redeemed by the genuine affection he had for his friends – especially the hapless Alan, who he reluctantly takes under his wing. Alan constantly acts inappropriately – but his cluelessness and recklessness take his new friends out of their comfort zones, which is exactly what the uptight Stu needed in order to change his life for the better.

While the new film has some legitimate laugh-out-loud moments, especially in the first half, it doesn’t work nearly as well, for a couple of different reasons. Most importantly, it tries too hard to follow the plot of the original, moving the action from Las Vegas to Bangkok, but otherwise making sure every major situation and character has an analog in the new film. The problem is that it takes the unpredictability of the first film and makes it a formula the entire audience already knows. They up the ante at every turn, but they would have been better off going in a new direction once in a while.

Second, the characters don’t mesh as well. Phil is more of a jerk – and when he softens up in the last third, it seems forced. Stu, who takes most of the abuse, is in a very different situation, with a dream fiancé instead of a nightmare girlfriend, so it’s a little harder to laugh at all of the horrible things that happen to him to threaten his comfortable life.  

But really the whole premise hinges on Alan. You have to be able to root for him, despite his glaring and sometimes disgusting flaws, for the film the work. In the first version, you do. His longing to belong, to have a dedicated core of guy friends along with the loving parents and sister he already has – and the lengths he will go to in order to make them happen—drive the film. This time he is less pathetic and more of a spoiled brat, and it’s a problem.

Both films center on an inability to remember what happened the night before. While the ego was checked out, the pure id of these pampered suburban men was allowed free rein – in other words, that the person you really are was allowed to act why the person who think you are was no longer in control.

But what happens this time is more sinister overall, and also more likely to make one question oneself. Not surprisingly, it plays with issues of manhood more brutally than before – and in a way that might offend lots of Asian people. The most-talked about is the return of full-frontal nudity of effeminate master criminal Mr. Chow (Ken Jeong), who is equipped to make any guy in the audience feel better about themselves (apparently in both films it was Jeong’s idea, who likes to joke about what he lacks).

Then there’s the more impressive full frontal Asian male nudity of burlesque show performer Kimmy (Yasmin Lee)—who also happens to be a transsexual porn star with fake breasts in real life. Not to give away the obvious, but revelations about Kimmy leave one character with a bit of an identity crisis.

It’s kind of a wonder that worries about being or seeming gay played so little role in the first film, because it’s the elephant in the room of close male friendships. Traditionally, men haven’t been encouraged to have emotionally-supportive friendships with each other, and male friendships have often been considered an excuse to drink beer and act stupid.
The brilliance of the first “Hangover” movie was to show how both things can exist simultaneously – that stupidity can lead to bonding which can lead to an adventure where guys can take huge personal risks to bail each other out, and that they can care about each other in ways that having nothing to do with sex. That was the glue that allowed the first film to keep its humanity.

The lack of it this time around makes this installment feel like a funny but ultimately empty exercise in nihilistic tourism. If there’s a third “Hangover” film, I hope they concentrate more on the relationships between the guys that made the first one so funny, and less on a paint-by-numbers imitation of past brilliance.

More movies

The Double Hour (opens at the Tower Theatre, 2508 Landpark Drive, on Friday, Ma7 27)

Directed By: Giuseppe Capotondi

Review by Malcolm Maclachlan

“The Double Hour,” an acclaimed Italian thriller from 2009 now getting a wider U.S. release, takes some themes familiar to American audiences—the quest for love as the years are getting away, immigration, class—and puts them through an Italian lens. The film opens with Guido (Filippo Timi), a former cop and a widower searching for love as his 30s give way to his 40s. Guido, incidentally, is a normal if somewhat old-fashioned name in Italy, and he’s far from the stereotype, a sweet, understated guy who invites trust. At a singles speed-dating mixer he meets Slovenian immigrant Sonia (Kseniya Rappoport), and the two hit it off. But her past soon comes back to haunt them both.

The film delivers the kind of tension thriller audiences like. But it’s notably for how much goes unsaid. It’s a demanding film, with audiences needing to read the subtitles when sometimes the more important information can be seen on the character’s faces. The fact that it’s a foreign film also heightened the tension for me—because you can’t count on a happy ending. “The Double Hour” has cleaned up on the International festival circuit, and if you’re a fan of this kind of small film with a big punch, you’ll understand why.

Meek’s Cutoff
Directed by Kelly Reichardt

Review by Tony Sheppard

Kelly Reichardt’s last feature was the minimalistic “Wendy and Lucy” about a young woman and her dog, unencumbered by money or much of a plot, as she tries to pass through a small town in Oregon on her way to Alaska. Here she teams again with Michelle Williams (who played Wendy) in another story about travelers crossing Oregon, this time a group of settlers in 1845. Three families have put their hopes in Meek, a crusty guide who has taken them on an unknown route across barren and largely waterless country. Along the way, they encounter a native rider who they su
rmise must know where water is.

The film’s production notes make reference to themes of invaders and natives and a guide who seems set on his course despite an unsuccessful record, with the suggestion of parallels to the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan and the administration of George W. Bush, including a scene which might be said to depict “enhanced interrogation.” At one point, Williams character says of Meek, “I don’t blame him for not knowing. I blame him for saying he did.” But it seems to go further as the group, acting as a small democracy, has to decide whether they can better trust the man of color who seems to offer a sense of hope in the face of failed leadership, despite deep seated suspicions and bias.

However, the film is fascinating in ways far removed from political allegory. Most commercial films are heavily plot-driven, and most westerns follow the actions of strong, action-taking men. In contrast, “Meek’s Cutoff” favors the women’s perspective, often watching the conversations of the men as they decide the fate of the group, far off in the distance, with the women left disenfranchised around the wagons, with more chores to do than decisions to make. In these scenes, the dialog is as distant and vague as the figures, leaving the audience as frustrated as the women who were left to guess at what was being said. Similarly, scenes at night are as dark and murky as an actual night on an unlit trail.

The film does a good job of depicting the difficulty and inherent danger in long distance travel, especially for the earliest pioneers or anybody taking the vast leaps of faith to head out over uncharted lands (or waters). It isn’t always easy to watch, and will probably annoy those who like a clear story with concrete outcomes. There’s a story here, but it resides in the potential shifting of faith from one leader to the other, not in the outcome of the journey. As long as it’s taken as that, it succeeds. If you’re looking for a traditional western with a clear resolution and a hero’s ride into the sunset, you should skip this one and hope that Clint Eastwood might take to the saddle or camera again.

The Beaver
Directed by Jodie Foster

Review by Tony Sheppard

Ok – at times Mel Gibson can be a real schmuck (irony intended) and some reviews seem to have focused largely on that. But he’s also had some notable moments as an actor, and this might even be his best yet.  He plays Walter Black, a man who is so depressed that he has withdrawn inside himself and is barely communicative. That is until he finds a beaver hand puppet and develops a second personality that talks through the puppet, in an almost flawless East London accent, including scenes in which the two voices talk and argue together – no easy feat.

But there’s more to the limited communication themes than that, as Walter’s son (played by Anton Yelchin) has trouble expressing himself verbally while being so good at writing that his peers pay him to write their papers. Meanwhile, the girl he’s interested in is similarly blocked on paper and only truly expressive in paint, and his younger brother is innocent enough to have no hang-ups happily conversing with anybody, including the beaver.

Jodie Foster plays Walter’s beleaguered wife and also directs with a simple touch that allows the characters and their circumstances to define the movie, rather than any directorial showpersonship. It’s an interesting story that considers the effects of mental illness within a family, as well as the fleeting nature of some celebrity. And, at times, it’s also quite funny. If you can get past the premise and the lead actor, and roll with it, it works surprisingly well.

Kung Fu Panda 2
Directed by Jennifer Yuh

Review by Tony Sheppard

Three years ago, we said that “Kung Fu Panda” was formulaic but executed well, with some neat parodies of the martial arts genre. Indeed, my recollection of it was sufficiently positive that I was concerned the sequel might be a slightly warmed over excuse for a story that failed to live up to the original. However it actually succeeds, inserting a well thought out back-story for the main Po character at the same time as introducing a new villain (a megalomaniacal peacock). The tone is a little different, with less parody, and it manages to deliver some worthwhile messages about relationships and parents along with a small dose of history (the invention of gunpowder in China and its subsequent uses in both fireworks and weaponry). You don’t have to have seen the first to enjoy this, although it helps, and it seems like a safe holiday weekend bet for the family.

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