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What happens in Vegas, stays in Bangkok

Mayank Shekhar spends a day on the sets of Hangover 2, sequel to the world’s most successful adult comedy film, to figure out what makes Stu, Phil and Alan the craziest three stooges of our time.

hollywood Updated: May 29, 2011 13:14 IST
Mayank Shekhar

There's a windowless, airy canister for a mini-bus, packed with poor peasants with East Asian features. An invalid Buddhist monk, who's mute and in a wheelchair, and three haggard, familiar white gentlemen get dropped off outside a monastery gate. One of them is unevenly bald (Alan: actor Zach Galifianakis). Another has a fresh tattoo on his face (Stu: Ed Helms). The third buddy in a white crumpled shirt (Phil: Bradley Cooper) pays the driver off.

They're supposed to get off that bus and enter through the monastery's main gate while Alan says bye to everyone. This is the nth time that bus has driven in, and backed up again. Each time Zach (Alan) says bye to different people, improvising on names with subsequent takes, "Bye Chenin, bye li'l Wayne, bye the one with the mole…" "After the eighth take, I just try to make other actors laugh," Zach tells us later. Clearly.

You can't possibly go wrong with this scene. Almost a quarter of a severely sunny day in October, a couple hours' drive away from Bangkok, has gone by to get this right. Comedy is serious hard work. It's hardly entertaining to watch actors, under a stickler-for-detail director (Todd Philips), belabour over something that appears for less than a second in the final film. But we don't mind.

Getting into a Hollywood set - any film's, but especially the Hangover sequel's - is like journalistic access to a guarded terror camp. There's a certain hush in the air, hundreds of crewmembers walk around with a sense of classified purpose, everything's out of bounds. You can barely tell if they're devising a bomb in there, or making a blockbuster.

Bill Clinton had walked into the same set the day before. No one will say why. It's a "Disneyland of Asian architecture", as location guy Chris aptly describes this theme park we're in. This is right before Stu, Phil and Alan get into a prayer room full of monks as Stu gets the hell beaten out of him by one of the robed men. After initial takes, it's the actors' 'doubles' (look-alikes in the same clothes), who take all the beating from a slapstick.

Investigating a phenomenon
The three crazy stooges are here, of course, to figure out what happened to them the night before Stu's wedding. They had barely stepped out for a beer at a Thai resort. They woke up in the morning in a dumpy Bangkok room, their faces fried up, a broken finger lying in a corner, with a local, Mr Chao (from the first part), who seems dead. You will know this about Hangover 2, because the complete premise, except for the nitty gritty of the plot, gets repeated from Hangover 1. A Thai monkey hangs over Phil's neck for a tiger they'd stolen from Mike Tyson's house before. "Warner (the producers) had signed up everyone for the sequel, even before the original came out," Bradley says. You believe him.

We're here to conduct a minor investigation of our own, to examine exactly what happened on a lame weekend in 2009 that made a random flick about three men in their mid-30s at a bachelors' party in Vegas the highest grossing R-rated (A-certified) comedy in history. It reportedly broke a record held by Beverly Hills Cop for almost 25 years. Hangover also became the highest selling comedy DVD ever. It was filmed for about $35 million dollars. It collected over $467 million worldwide, disproving, as director Todd puts it, "[the theory] that comedies don't transcend internationally". It's a minor mystery all right. So what happened in Vegas?

The approach was different, Todd suggests, or rather guesses. "One, to make a movie about an event that you never get to see. Two, connect to the heart of the film, which is that these guys love each other. And then the audiences can watch the film though each character's eyes: Phil's, Stu's… the weirdos can watch it through Alan's."

Zach the ripper
To be fair, watching anything through the fat, slow, dunderhead, "stay-home son" Alan may be a tad harsh for anyone's eyes. Almost overnight, Hangover made Zach Galifianakis a global comic star. He's done six television series, and as many movies, since. He walked in for a split second in the serious Up In the Air the same year as Hangover. The audiences at my theatre, for no reason, burst out laughing.

"It's offensive to me," Zach mumbles, with that deadpan expression. "I have to live with it all my life. At both my sister's and brother's weddings, I had to deliver toasts. I was choking up. There were 400 guests. It was ridiculous to have that many people laugh when I'm crying. It can be a bit of a burden to be never taken seriously. I go to eat where old people go now. There, people don't laugh at me. I am kind of a loner anyway. Stand-up tours are lonelier still. My mom tells me I must be having a woman at every port. What? Am I a pirate?"

Hanging out with the Hangover actors at work, you do realise one thing that they all separately mention about their roles: Their characters are really "exaggerations of their true selves." It does seem like a balanced family. As Todd interprets it, "Bradley (Phil) exudes confidence. He's the dad. Ed (Stu) panics. He's the mom. Alan is of course the child for the tornado of mayhem he causes around him." This also takes competitiveness out of the equation. Ed reasons, "If we were similar, we'd be competing for jokes." Spoken truly like a mom.

In fact, they don't even need to be witty or funny. It's all in the situations. The characters react at the same time the audience does. And as Alan says inside that bus - which, by the way, I still see coming and going on the set - "A monkey nibbling on a penis is funny in any language." Take it or leave it; barf or laugh: "It's gonna get worse before it gets better!"

The universal male story
The joke is still on the guys, Todd rightly argues. "It's like Borat. The joke's on him. In Bruno, the joke's on everyone else. It doesn't connect the same way." The three reluctant men are neither deranged junkies nor frat boys on the loose. Their awkwardness may create the comedy, but they are relatively regular folk who reveal a "sustained adolescence" about them that somehow unites men around the world. Women understand this too. Observe nostalgic conversations about average men's fun anywhere between Dallas and Delhi and you will notice that they are mostly stories about those certain nights they got seriously drunk, and what they said, what they did, what they don't remember… Surely you have your own favourites, ones that start out, "This one time I got so hammered..." Stories that you have repeated several times over. I have mine.

Of course, the gentlemen on Hangover take being 'shit-faced' to an altogether other level.

And there are few cities in the world, as Todd should know, "that, when you hear their names, they immediately mean something: Vegas, Rio, Amsterdam…." Bangkok is one of them. Like Vegas, it immediately means "bad behaviour," says Zach. Mumbai, before Reverend RR Patil in 2005, could've meant something similar.

I leave the set, spend the evening walking around the entertainment district of Patpong, get led into a ping-pong bar by a tout pretending to be a sweet-talking local friend. He leaves me alone. I walk out of a grotesque live show on gynaecology, before they present me a bill that suggests I'd bought all the female anatomies at the bar a round of free drinks. We'll have to call the mafia, the madam tells me. I head to the hotel. Clearly, by now I need a drink. The next morning I miss my flight back!

Okay, so this doesn't come anywhere close to a dead Ed making drunk love to a lady-boy. But even while the movie's being shot, you can instantly decode that Hangover 2 will work too - at least for its fanboys. What happens in vagueness truly does stay in Bangkok.