In The Hangover, a group of friends go to Las Vegas for a stag party, get blind drunk and discover that they've done all sorts of things while under the influence that they have to sort out before the wedding. In The Hangover Part 2, exactly the same happens but you can swap Bangkok for Las Vegas.
One imagines that Todd Phillips could go on making these films indefinitely by changing the location; alternatively, straight-to-DVD sequels could be produced with increasingly less glamorous settings until the Wolf Pack find themselves waking up after an exciting night in Stoke Newington. Clearly, something is awry when such a lazy sequel can be a massive commercial success without people demanding their money back. To add insult to injury, the film recycles a good number of the same jokes from the first film, simply adding extra unpleasantness to the mix. It's visually ugly, badly paced and lazily acted; a film with no ideas beyond the basic motive of making money.
When I refer to a lack of ideas, I don't necessarily mean originality. Admittedly, there is precious little originality in mainstream Hollywood at the moment but then there never has been. Right from the start, American narrative filmmaking largely depended on existing ideas - plays, books, poems - and there's nothing at all unusual, or indeed wrong, about that. It's not where the material comes from, it's what you do with it that counts. A classic example: Brian de Palma may have stolen from Sergei Eisenstein in The Untouchables but he added a a good deal of his own style to the classic Odessa Steps sequence; equally, Sergei Eisenstein refined that legendary scene from visual ideas first seen in D.W. Griffith's Intolerance. The problem I'm concerned about is that so many films coming out of America seem to have virtually no ideas at all. It's not just the plots, it's the fact that the plots are recycled with such a paucity of visual and verbal invention. A great director can take familiar material and renew it through sheer visionary panache; Tim Burton, for example, rarely creates original stories but his films, like them or not, never seem like the work of anyone else. But if a director doesn't really care then there's no hope for the film.
The surprising commercial success of the monochrome and largely silent film The Artist suggests to me that audiences are desperate for something which is different and, more to the point, has some kind of controlling vision beyond the standard demands of a three-act story. As several writers have cogently argued, it's not a great film and, by the standards of the silent films which were actually being made in 1927, it's really rather mediocre. But Michael Hazanavicius has genuine ideas and has the skill to put them onto film. Compare that to the likes of The Iron Lady or J. Edgar which, despite promising performances, trudge through potentially interesting lives with all the inventiveness of an average TV biopic; or Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows which, Jared Harris' brilliant Moriarty apart, has no feeling for either Conan Doyle's creation or the period in which it is meant to be set, and ends up like any other big-budget adventure movie in which the Great Detective might as well be James Bond or Indiana Jones.
Speaking of Ethan Hunt, however, Brad Bird demonstrates in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol that all is not lost in the world of mega-budget action. It's packed with familiar set-pieces and the script barely rises above the functional but Bird's direction is inspired, turning the familiar grind of the M:I series into a crazily insolent live-action cartoon. The pacing is a little bit frenetic, even hysterical, and it's obvious that no-one quite knows when to say enough is enough but you get the impression that Brad Bird could go on directing daft stunt sequences for another hour and still not run out of ingenuity. The ideas here come not from the material but from the execution and that's what is desperately needed. The film is just an action flick but it's got a soul and it's alive. The Hangover Part 2, on the other hands, looks like it was filmed in a drunken stupor.
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