Comedy, strangely, is one popular genre that’s struggled with the marketing powers of the threequel. This weekend, director Todd Phillips, who’s already set a new model for comedy success in many respects, will gain another distinction when his most popular film series joins a rare — and terrible — group of humor franchises that make it to a third outing. He hopes The Hangover: Part III avoids the doomed flight path flown by the others. I’m praying he fails.
Dick Wolf can feel free to write me in as a lowlife deserving of capital punishment in Law & Order: Syndication Paycheck Unit, but it’s obvious to me that pounding out quality laughs will always be harder than drama, no matter what the Oscars scoreboard says. Truly great comics, and great comedy writers, are similar to magicians. Their jokes are crafted to feel natural, original and relatable; their jokes are crafted to feel easy. Yet once the secret gets out, they never capture a viewer in the same way again.
Doing the same shtick a third time to anything more than a boo? You’ll have better luck teaching humility to Kanye.
This conundrum, along with an average academy voting age rivaling Moses’, is behind the genre’s regular awards drubbing. Climbing that golden mountain, even just for a nomination, requires the extra push of a social movement or some tasteful portrayal of love. 1977’s Annie Hall was the last comedy to take home best picture, and even Woody Allen himself admitted needing “the courage to abandon … just clowning around and the safety of complete broad comedy… to try and make some deeper film.” Dr. Strangelove had Mutually Assured Destruction. Tootsie had gender inequality. Little Miss Sunshine had the redefining of the American family unit. Midnight in Paris had Paris, and Owen Wilson’s crinkled schnoz.
So comedies are hard. But at least the obstacles cockblocking most of the humor field at the Oscars force some originality, right? Right. Now comes the problem with comedy sequels: they’re unoriginal by definition.
Still, they get made. Series like The Pink Panther, Weekend at Bernie’s and Duece Bigalow, highlight the decent, the bad and the ugly side of getting the band back together. Doing it a third time to anything more than a boo? You’ll have better luck teaching humility to Kanye. Particularly if money isn’t the only measuring stick for success.
Except that it always is. Indeed, giving Phil, Stu, Alan, and Doug the chance for closure on their post-blackout shenanigans through a third, feature-length film seems natural by today’s trilogy-laden standards, especially when you consider that the first Hangover racked up $467 million globally, setting a domestic box office record as the highest-grossing original R-rated comedy in the process — and only cost a mere $35 million to make. The sequel making $586 million didn’t hurt either.
Here’s my problem: even if it is funny, the third movie is inevitably bad for comedy.
Even including the Wolf Pack, the list of comedy trilogies is sparse and reads like a Hollywood roast, particularly when you exclude animated features like Shrek and Toy Story, or action-adventure triplets like Back to the Future. What’s left includes series such as American Pie, Austin Powers, Harold & Kumar, Meet the Parents/Fockers, The Naked Gun and Rush Hour. None of their third installments scored above a 6 in IMDB’s meta ranking. The Rotten Tomatoes review that appears in a Google search for Rush Hour 3 describes their collective problem perfectly: “Rush Hour 3 is a tired rehash of the earlier films, and a change of scenery can’t hide a lack of new ideas”. Other franchises like Cheech and Chong, Police Academy, Revenge of the Nerds and Scary Movie are part of the same infamous club. They just failed to pump the brakes at three movies in the race downhill for B movie domination.
In spite of all that, Todd Philip’s Hangover legacy may very well crack the code. He did Old School, after all. Here’s my problem: even if it is funny, the third movie is inevitably bad for comedy. This is truly the last genre with producers routinely ballsy enough to take a chance on something new, and I’d rather not see today’s comic talent follow the money-grubbing leads of the sci-fi, horror and fantasy industries these days.
That’s why this weekend I’ll be sitting at home, praying that the curse of the comedy triplets works its magic again. We should be encouraging the next Hughes, Allens, Brooks, Pryors, Candys and Martins of this world to master one act and then move on to the next. Because pulling the same hungover rabbit out of the same worn out hat gets old fast.
Additional contributions by Chris Wright