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MOVIE REVIEW: 'The Hangover Part III' goes out with whimper

The Hangover Part III

(R)

2 out of 4 stars

The good news is that "The Hangover Part III" is better than "The Hangover Part II" but then getting smacked upside the head with a 2x4 would be better than "II." If for no other reason "III" at least deserves some modicum of credit for not being another carbon copy of the first.

What is most surprising about "III" -- a movie being advertised as the final installment in the franchise -- is that is goes out on a relative whimper. Few movies could reach the level of gonzo debauchery and wigged-out hi-jinx exhibited in the first.

Perhaps realizing they couldn't make anything close to as goodas the first, but deathly afraid of cranking out another repeat, returning director Todd Philips and his co-writer Craig Mazan didsomething almost as bad as blatant duplication: they played it mothers' milk safe. But again, "safe" is a relative term.The most glaring of the movies' many shortcomings is the almost total lack of alcohol -- the major ingredient that causes hangovers in the first place. There's some minor off-screen use of cocaine and, apart from one scene where four guys don't even finish one drink each, the movie is as dry and sober as a Baptist tea party. This isn't the aftermath of a party with guys crawling through the rubble and wreckage of a drunken blowout -- it's a rote textbook road flick action/adventure flick and not a very clever one at that.

Because the three leads aren't all that deep (one's glib, one is paranoid, the other is just plain clueless), the filmmakers have to come up with narrative-driven plots that don't take too many chances or push any boundaries. As has been the case in all three installments, the most interesting character of the bunch is Ken Jeong's Mr. Chow, a firecracker, wing-nut Asian gangster not all that dissimilar in mindset from writer Hunter S. Thompson. The movie opens with a jailbreak scene featuring Chow -- stolen directly from "The Shawshank Redemption."

In order to get the three leads (plus tag-along Justin Bartha as Doug) alone together in quick time, the friends and family of the arrested development Alan (Zach Galifianakis) pull an intervention that results in him being hauled away to rehab by Stu (Ed Helms) and Phil (Bradley Cooper). They don't get very far before all of them are kidnapped by Marshall (John Goodman), a previously unseen and poorly-dressed character who has a major bone to pick with Chow. If the three leads deliver Chow to Marshall, he won't whack Doug.

Just how the guys find Chow (and locate him again later) is admittedly interesting yet not always funny, but what ultimately stops these scenes and most of the movie in its tracks is a heavy and ill-fitting reliance on schmaltzy sentimentality. One scene showing Alan bonding with a toddler could easily make it into any Disney family film and a few others towards the end would be right at home in the most mainstream of PG-rated romantic comedies. The level of danger (unless you're a large animal native to Africa) is practically non-existent. The movie's got too much Whitman's Sampler heart and not nearly enough nasty gut-bucket soul.

Philips manages to deliver a major surprise about halfway through with his casting of a well-known but initially unbilled actress who shows up in a scene opposite Galifianakis (with strains of Billy Joel's "The Stranger" lurking in the background). It's erotic and romantic but in a creepy-crawly way, is arguably the best scene in the film and the only one on a par with anything seen in the first.

Just like the other feckless action sequel being released this week ("Fast & Furious 6"), "The Hangover Part III" will prove to be resistant and immune to journalistic criticism and will certainly enjoy a healthy and robust opening weekend. That's a given. What isn't a given is the hopeful positive word of mouth that might go south fast and spread like wildfire amongst the masses that could decimate the second weekend take. Too many of the diehard Wolf Pack faithful will exit the theater and rapidly tell their more patient friends to maybe just wait for it on video. (Warner Bros.)