There is a moment late in The Hangover 3 in which the franchise's sort-of villain and sort-of sidekick Chow (Ken Jeong) jumps off a Caesars Palace balcony and paraglides across the city, yelling "I love cocaine!"
It's indicative of director Todd Phillips' approach that we don't actually see anything go up Chow's nostrils. His emphasis is on punchlines irrespective of setups, pay-offs for jokes that haven't even been invoiced. You can see it in the aberrant, flaky face expressions of star Zach Galifianakis, as if the chubby man-child were a grown-up Haley Joel Osment from The Sixth Sense (1999), stoned instead of spooked.
Unsurprisingly, the jokes that work -- such as a freeway accident caused by a giraffe beheading and a heart attack after a tense emotional exchange -- required investment in characters and situations.
The first Hangover movie was structured in the model of Preston Sturges' The Miracle of Morgan's Creek (1944), about a party girl who wakes up to find herself married and pregnant but can't remember how it happened or who her husband is. Here the shtick is much less progressive and much more shambolic. In Phillips' hands The Hangover became a murder-less Agatha Christie story on roofies, with a bunch of heavy-headed drinkers trying to solve the mystery of what they did the night before.
The second movie photocopied the format and tinkered around the edges (different city, different animal in the hotel room, etc) and the third ditches it completely. An intervention for the erratic Alan (Galifianakis) is interrupted when the familiar trio (Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms and Galifinakas) are blackmailed by a gangster (John Goodman) who demands they find Chow and return stolen gold. The mission sends them floundering in different directions before they eventually end up back in Vegas.
Without the signature framing device (here the hangover, if there is one, is thematic) The Hangover 3 scrambles to make sense of itself, lurching between action, sight and situational humour with the grace of a 2am drunk wolfing down a souvlaki.
The jokes are hit and miss, the structure slippery and seemingly ad hoc, as if scenarios were invented on the spot and executed in the spirit of a flat night at comedy improv.
Watching the cast fossick through the dregs of a franchise, desperately prolonging its dying boozy breaths, should turn the stomach more than it does here, but there's something mildly amusing about a group of talented performers casually gate crash a party long after the cool people have left.
When the hangover lasts longer than the high, so the wisdom goes, its time to kick the habit. Phillips' second sequel, mercifully billed as the final installment, finds the franchise not so much hungover as brain dead, and no amount of hair of the dog can give it a second -- or fourth -- wind.
The Hangover 3's Australian theatrical release date: May 23, 2013.