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The Hangover Part III isn’t much of a comedy. It wants to be funny (I think) but there are stretches without even an attempt at a joke. It’s closer to a hallucinogenic drama, decorated occasionally with an bloom of laughter. There are wild moments, but compared to the first two movies this one pushes the needle towards a different form of “outrageous.” (The most conventionally extreme jokes come when a mid-credits stinger scene goes straight for what viewers of the second film jeered: a flat-out reprise of the scenario from the original film.)

The focus this time is Zach Galifianakis as the damaged, nearly deranged Alan. Entitled and abusive, Alan is domineering at home and ever more reckless in the wild. His grossly disastrous attempt to domesticate a giraffe leads to horror at home; soon his wolf pack “friends” from the previous two films unite to stage an intervention. The Hangover Part III doesn’t go very far with the intervention idea, because further trouble takes precedence. A gangster once robbed by Lesley Chow (Ken Jeong) coerces the guys into tracking Chow, and life goes off the rails once more.

Director Todd Phillips, who co-wrote with Craig Mazin, seems stuck halfway between two extremes. On one side there’s a super-dark movie about mental illness; on the other there’s an Id-indulging comedy. In a way that is almost perversely appropriate for a film series about hijacked plans, The Hangover Part III never gets close to either point.

The previous two Hangover films featured many instances where characters played by Bradley Cooper and Ed Helms attempted, with varying success, to corral Alan’s explosive psyche. Here’ they’re totally outmatched. Alan is bad enough, but Chow has become a creature of pure madness. As John Goodman’s gangster says of Chow, you can’t deal with such a thing, but “if you’re lucky, you trap it and kill it.” Goodman’s vicious, snarling turn provides one of the film’s high points, but ultimately not even he is the equal of undiluted crazy.

Todd Phillips’ early documentary Hated suggested an empathy for the wild and the damaged, and The Hangover succeeded thanks in part to a similar spirit. This swings the other way. After establishing Alan’s sickness as a very real, very troubling condition, further attempts to play it for laughs fall flat. There are glimmers of empathy, as Alan falls for a woman (Melissa McCarthy) who may be just as messed up as he is. It’s not like love is a grand redeeming factor, however. Eventually the idea of helping Alan just vaporizes, as if he was a lost cause all along.

Alan is an irritating, grating presence. The success of the film is that Galifianakis captures that character perfectly, in a way that is deeper and more scary than seen in either of the previous films. The downside is that watching Alan is also irritating, off-putting, and tedious. He’s rendered so well that we have the same experience with him that the rest of the wolf pack does. When Cooper and Helms are given some action, as in a weird doggy-style home invasion or an ill-conceived assault on Caesar’s Palace, some of the original Hangover verve returns. Most of the time, it doesn’t seem like channeling that energy is even Phillips’ goal.

This is almost a provocation, a bitter explosion of the very concept of the sequel. Maybe the “sequel” is the concept Goodman’s character is really addressing when he talks about backing madness into a corner and killing it. Rendering this series in terms of an aphorism, The Hangover Part II was “fool me once, shame on you.” In falling for the sales pitch again, we’re all to blame.

4 out of 10

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Russ Fischer woke up recently and realized he lives in Austin. (twitter.com/russfischer) or (russ.slashfilm at gmail.com)

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