The Nihilism of American Comedy: Todd Phillips’ The Hangover Trilogy

I’m a fan of The Hangover trilogy.

I’m going to be upfront about this so that no one is confused about where my sympathies lie. While some people hold Anchorman or Zoolander in very high esteem, thinking them comedy classics, I find the first Hangover movie to be the epitome of modern mainstream American comedy.

Most people would agree with me that the first film is a solid comedy, maybe even classic, but few people share my enthusiasm for its sequels. They think them shallow cash-grabs without much in the way of gags. While I disagree on a purely humour-based level—I find the sequels to be hilarious, Part II most of all—I also think the sequels uncover a level of self-aware satire, and establish the trilogy as the essential deconstruction of mainstream American comedy.

A Meta-Trilogy

I think a fruitful way of discussing aspects of The Hangover trilogy is comparing it to a structurally-similar trilogy, and if there’s a trilogy The Hangover films bear most resemblance to, it’sthe Back to the Future films. Bear with me here as I elaborate.

Like Back to the Future, the first The Hangover is an original twist on some familiar elements. Back to the Future was a Spielbergian sci-fi adventure using time travel as a way to explore family anxieties. The Hangover was a frat-boy comedy using a noir mystery structure to explore its own characters’ debauchery. They’re high-concept genre pieces that were well received and didn’t really necessitate sequels. The Hangover is not particularly meta on its own, and doesn’t have quite the nihilistic misanthropy of its sequels.

However, the second film in each trilogy makes you rethink the first one in major ways. And both sequels interact with the very structure of their predecessors.

In Back to the Future Part II, Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) has to return to 1955 and ensure that all the events of the first film actually occur so as to assure his family’s eventual well-being. There’s a section of the film which takes place in the future of 2015, but the most interesting part of the film is when Marty actually watches himself in the climax of the first film, giving us a new vantage point on the meaning of these events. While the first film was this clever, original adventure that was fairly uninterested in the paradoxes its central premise created beyond how it affected its characters emotionally, the sequel added layers to the original, and made the time travel paradoxes its very subject.

The Hangover Part II is a seedier, nastier, funnier riff on the first film. I love its intense devotion to reworking the structure of the first film, beat for beat. While some people find the repetitive nature of the film lazy, I find nothing lazy about such deliberate structuring. If the film were lazy, it’d be similar to the first one, not nearly identical.

Like Back to the Future Part II, The Hangover Part II sheds new light on the first film by directly interacting with the first film. Back to the Future Part II inserts its hero into the very events of the first film, showing that the supposedly isolated actions in the first film are actually complicated components of a space-time paradox. The Hangover Part II has the Wolf Pack stuck in a repeat of the events of the first film, except with bigger stakes and darker setting, showing that the characters are intrinsically destructive.

In The Hangover, Phil (Bradley Cooper), Stu (Ed Helms), and Alan’s (Zach Galifianakis) debauchery is seen as a result of their intoxication. They’re supposed to be seen as these fairly typical guys—standard character types: the cocky guy, the straight-laced guy, the weirdo—and so we could see our own intoxicated stupidity, amped up, in their own misadventures. The film was supposed to be saying, well, who hasn’t done stupid shit when you’re black-out drunk?

However, when these characters repeat their insanity in The Hangover Part II, we have to look at their actions in the original film in new light. These aren’t just the results of intoxication. Not all people leave such swathes of destruction in their wake when they’re intoxicated. These characters are sick people. Stu says that he’s got a demon in him in The Hangover Part II. In Part III, Alan tells Mr. Chow that whenever they get together, bad stuff happens and people get hurt. These are probably the most self-reflective moments these characters have in the films.

Even Back to the Future Part III and The Hangover Part III share similarities. Both eschew the structure of the first two films and give a genre take containing the same characters as their predecessors. Back to the Future Part III is a western and The Hangover Part III is a crime thriller. Both films humour the genre desires of their directors. Robert Zemeckis clearly wanted to do a western and since the genre was fairly defunct in the late 80s, he incorporated Marty McFly into it. Todd Phillips seems to have a desire to direct genre action films, but knew that studios wouldn’t give him the money unless he included the Wolf Pack in the action.

Both films exist ostensibly to give the characters a happy ending, but as the credits stinger in The Hangover Part III shows, the supposed lessons these characters have learned are hollow. The Wolf Pack is bound to keep raining destruction down on the world whenever it gets together. Although Alan swears off Mr. Chow in the film’s climax, Chow returns in the credits stinger. The growth of these characters is revealed to be a shame. The comedy of these films is finally outed as dark satire.

Satire, Not Comedy

The Hangover trilogy has been billed as a blockbuster comedy series. It’s the appearance the marketing team wants to put out there, and what most audience members see it as. However, as the layers and repetitions of the sequels show, this is a series about the nihilism of the mainstream American comedy. The trilogy lays bare the pretense that the characters of mainstream American comedy films can act like pathetic man-children, be abuse and destructive to other individuals, and then get away with it in the end because they learn some kind of lesson. The Wolf Pack learns no lessons. And their damage only escalates as their adventures continue.

As I said earlier, the three central characters in The Hangover films are deliberate types. Phil is the cool guy. Stu is the normal guy. Alan is the weird guy. These are three of the typical American comedy character stereotypes. By focusing on these stereotypes, the kind of characters you see in most every American comedy, Will Ferrell to Adam Sandler, Todd Phillips is deconstructing the supposedly safe aspect of American comedy.

Galifianakis’s Alan is the real key to understanding the misanthropy and nihilism of these films. The man-child has been a staple of American comedy for years. The late 70s had John Belushi. The 80s had John Candy. The 90s had Adam Sandler. The 00s had Will Ferrell. Now we have Zach Galifianakis. In The Hangover films, Alan is a barely-functioning sociopath. His insanity causes the hangover of the first two films in the franchise. His friendship with Mr. Chow constantly brings that more dangerous element into the lives of the Wolf Pack and puts people at danger. At the climax of The Hangover Part III, his actions indirectly leave several people dead.

In American comedy we’re supposed to laugh at these sorts of man-children, not berate them. They can be offensive, vulgar, hurtful and all-around insane, so long as at the end of the film, they come to some sort of realization and pretend to incorporate into normal American society. What this attitude does is excuse the destructive nature of this character type and the inherent misanthropy of this comedy staple. The Hangover films refuse to do that.

In the first Hangover, the characters go on their destructive rampage throughout their blackout, but at the end of the film, they swear off partying and all is supposedly well in the world. But then they repeat their actions in the second film and more shit gets destroyed. Instead of just trashing a hotel room, they set a Bangkok city street ablaze. Instead of kidnapping a tiger, they kidnap an old man. Their destruction is amplified. Their false promises are shown as just that: false, and their destructive nature is highlighted. In The Hangover Part III, they don’t blackout, but the ripple-effects of their actions leave at least four people dead, a giraffe beheaded and a whole lot of buildings trashed.

I cannot stress enough how important it is that the Wolf Pack repeats their drunken escapades in the credit stinger of The Hangover Part III. By having this be the final thing we ever see of the Wolf Pack, Phillips is saying that they will never change, and that the stereotypical heroes of American comedy will never stop being destructive. Most American satire doesn’t have the balls to really show that its targets are irredeemable. Take last year’s The Campaign, which started out as a promising satire of American politics, but then had to ease up on the satire, and allow the characters to change and mature. Todd Phillips, however, is so misanthropic he has no qualms about holding back on showing that change is impossible.

The Hangover films are certainly not for everyone. Their twisted humour and unrelenting misanthropy turn most people off and appeal to a darker sense of humour than the average person has. But by being so dark and downright unsentimental, Todd Phillips makes them the definitive statement on the destructive nature of mainstream American comedy. He lays bare its nihilism and the misanthropy of its comedic heroes.

People don’t have to agree with me that The Hangover films are brilliant movies. But they are most certainly not the shallow comedies critics accuse them of being. They’re saying something dark and disturbing about the current state of American comedy. Perhaps they’re just saying something that most people don’t want to hear: that what we laugh at is awful, and that the heroes of our fictional comedies are the monsters of our reality.

The Hangover (2009, USA)

Directed by Todd Phillips; written by Jon Lucas & Scott Moore; starring Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, Zach Galifianakis, Justin Bartha, Heather Graham, Ken Jeong, and Jeffrey Tambor.

The Hangover Part II (2011, USA)

Directed by Todd Phillips; written by Scot Armstrong & Craig Mazin & Todd Phillips; starring Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, Zach Galifianakis, Justin Bartha, Ken Jeong, Jeffrey Tambor, and Paul Giamatti.

The Hangover Part III (2013, USA)

Directed by Todd Phillips; written by Todd Phillips & Craig Mazin; starring Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, Zach Galifianakis, Ken Jeong, Justin Bartha, Jeffrey Tambor, Melissa McCarthy, Heather Graham, and John Goodman.