A shaved head. A severed finger. A Bangkok hotel room that's cruddy enough to be a crack den. A screaming monkey in a Rolling Stones blue-jean vest. A Mike Tyson Maori tattoo freshly etched around the eye of Stu (Ed Helms), the polite dentist who's the one getting married this time. In The Hangover Part II, the cleverly structured, pretty funny sequel to Todd Phillips' 2009 what-happens-in-Vegas megahit The Hangover, those are the mysterious WTF clues to whatever happened the night before to sharkish, presentable Phil (Bradley Cooper), reckless half-wit Alan (Zach Galifianakis), and sweet, repressed Stu. Once again, the characters and the audience have to work backward to find out what, exactly, put the trio known as the Wolfpack in this sorry and dazed predicament. And once again, the movie hypes the sleazy, dangerous thrill of three ordinary schmoes on a bender and shrewdly domesticates it at the same time.
This much we know: They all traveled to a seaside resort in Thailand for Stu's wedding to Lauren (Jamie Chung), whose father hates his future son-in-law so much that during a toast at the rehearsal dinner, he pays him a ''compliment'' by comparing him to comfortably plain, soggy white rice. (That's just the kind of goofy-misanthropic '80s-style joke that Phillips thrives on.) Stu, having learned about the perils of intoxication in The Hangover after he extracted one of his own incisors, insists on no bachelor party. And so the trio, accompanied by Lauren's studious teenage brother, Teddy (Mason Lee), meet on the beach for a campfire and a beer…but end up in this post-mayhem dilemma anyway. The next day, Teddy is nowhere to be found (though that sliced-off digit appears to be his). But the guys do find Mr. Chow, the English-mangling gangster played in both films by Ken Jeong with such wackadoo exuberance that you can almost forgive the slight racism of the character. (Let's be honest: He's a badass version of Long Duk Dong from Sixteen Candles.) Chow is now practically part of the Wolfpack himself at least until he takes a snort of cocaine and collapses.
Here, as in The Hangover, the laughs aren't just staged, they're superlatively engineered even if that means, at moments, that they feel like they're falling into formatted slots. When they don't, the movie can be flat-out hilarious. As the guys begin their desperate search for a missing bank account number (they have to give it to a drug lord or he'll kill them), it's no surprise to discover that they went to a Bangkok strip bar. And when we learn what happened in that club to Stu who hasn't shaken his tendency to fall drunkenly head over heels in love with hookers you may see the twist coming, but you won't foresee the casual outrageousness of the dialogue, the kind that keeps on giving.
Yet that sort of choke-on-your-popcorn laugh is more the exception than the rule. Like the first film, The Hangover Part II comes on as a slapstick orgy of naughtiness, but beneath that, the movie is a reassuringly conventional comic detective story in which most of the fun lies in piecing the evidence of debauchery together. And that, at least to me, tends to produce chuckles rather than major guffaws. Still, Phillips keeps the whole thing popping, and the clogged, smoggy Bangkok setting, with its layered skeeziness and depravity, lends the picture a vivid squalor that grounds the laughs in reality a notch more than Vegas did. On those festering streets of sin, anything can happen and does. Paul Giamatti screams (winningly) as a big-shot crime boss, and a car chase is as madly jacked as the one in Doug Liman's Go.
Now that we know them, the core characters are all the funnier; they've become an American suburban version of the Three Stooges. Cooper, the voice of exasperated sanity, plays Phil with great addled double takes, and Helms, as the frazzled, neurotic Stu, puts his rage and anxiety gleefully close to the surface. Even more than before, Zach Galifianakis is the wild card. Looking like a prison-camp mongrel with his shaved head, he makes Alan an overgrown damaged child with a screw loose: You never know what he'll say next, yet somehow it all connects. I wouldn't call The Hangover Part II a message movie, but it has a saucy, redemptive vibe: It says that sometimes the only way to grow up is to act as badly as you possibly can and come out the other side. And to vow nudge, nudge never to do it again. B+