Sunday, October 24, 2010

Right or Wrong, The Hangover 2 does not need Mel Gibson.

Bradley Cooper, Zach Galifianakis, Ed Helms and the rest of the cast just plain didn't want Mel Gibson in The Hangover 2. That much we know, as his cameo role as a crazed tattoo artist was announced, then retracted and recast with Liam Neeson in just a few days last week. Since then, there has been much speculation and discussion in the blogosphere, much of it centering on the alleged hypocrisy of allowing a convicted rapist (Mike Tyson) to appear in the original Hangover while crying foul at casting a man who is an occasional drunk driver and periodic anti-Semite/racist asshole. But sometimes it's really not that complicated. What if the disapproval over casting Mel Gibson in The Hangover 2 had nothing to do with morality, but with simple business sense?

Galifianakis made headlines just a day or so after the casting in an interview where he out-and-out stated that he was having issues with decisions that were being made on his current project. "I'm in a deep protest right now with a movie I'm working on, up in arms about something. But I can't get the guys to [listen] ... I'm not making any leeway." That was the choice quote from a podcast over at Comedy Death Ray. Let's presume for the moment that he was in fact discussing the use of Mel Gibson in a token appearance in The Hangover 2. Notice how Galifianakis never stated that it was a moral objection, merely something that he was in deep protest about. We have no more reason to assume that Galifianakis (and whomever else in the cast disapproved) had any moral qualms than we have reason to presume that it was purely an artistic and/or business decision. It is just as likely that it was the latter, and if that's the case, those who disapproved were 100% correct.

The Hangover 2 does not need Mel Gibson. Having Mel Gibson in the film does not help the film earn a single dollar at the box office. Purely due to solid reviews, pre-release buzz, and a powerful Warner Bros marketing campaign, the original Hangover opened with $44.9 million back in June 2009. That's the second-biggest debut ever for an R-rated comedy (behind American Pie 2). It played all summer, earning $277.3 million domestic and $467 million worldwide and becoming the highest-grossing R-rated comedy ever, the third-biggest comedy domestically (behind Meet the Fockers and Home Alone) and the third-biggest grossing R-rated film in domestic history and the fourth-biggest worldwide R-rated grosser ever. Plus the film had such positive reviews and popular acclaim that there was genuine talk as to whether or not the film would end up with a Best Picture nomination at last year's Oscars.

The Hangover 2 is all-but guaranteed to score one of the biggest R-rated openings in history, with a four-day opening weekend (it opens Thursday, May 26th) that could eclipse the five-day total of The Passion of the Christ ($125 million) in 2004, if not the $134 million grossed by the four-day debut of The Matrix Reloaded in 2003. As I noted last year when discussing break-out potentials of sequels, comedies usually have the largest boost when comparing opening weekends. Even popular comedies tend to be devoured on DVD and watched repeatedly on cable, where they are discovered by new fans over the years. Alas, the two-year span between films negates the effect of basic cable airings, as TBS won't be airing The Hangover until right around when the sequel shows up on DVD/Blu Ray. Still, The Hangover 2 is primed to break out in a way comparable to Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, The Dark Knight, The Bourne Supremacy, and Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me. Having Mel Gibson onboard won't add much to an already sure-fire smash.

But here's what adding Mel Gibson would have added: It would have turned every media story about The Hangover 2 into a story about Mel Gibson. How did he behave on set? Was he polite? Did he socialize with the cast? Is there anyone he did or didn't get along with? We would have gotten months of hand-wringing over whether or not Todd Phillips and the gang should be helping in the image-rehabilitation of relatively unpopular celebrity, and whether or not said protests were hypocritical in light of (convicted rapist) Mike Tyson's casting in the first picture (one could argue that the cast had no leverage the first time around, so even if they disapproved it wasn't their call). Every press conference would invariably have taken a defensive tone, as those amongst the cast and crew who disagreed with the casting would have had to defend the choice without endorsing it. Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, and Zach Galifianakis would have become supporting players in their own movie, as the press junket rounds would have invariably focused on everything Gibson-related, at the expense of the movie itself. All for a brief scene that would have not added one dollar to the box office gross of the already sure-to-be-massive summer tentpole.

For whatever reasons that Mel Gibson's cameo was junked in favor of a Liam Neeson appearance, the film truly dodged a bullet. To an even greater extent that the attempted casting of Lindsey Lohan in the first film, this bit of celebrity stunt-casting would have diluted the reality that these films attempt to exist within (think the absurd cameos of Jay and Silent Bob in Scream 3). Now the makers of The Hangover 2 can concentrate on simply making their movie. I don't think that there particularly needs to be a sequel, and (allegedly) repeating the original premise in Thailand reeks of laziness. Plus the unceremonious dumping of Heather Graham, implying that the women in the first film are disposable, makes it that much harder to defend the original against accusations that it was just an obnoxiously sexist frat-boys comedy (it was an intricately plotted mystery narrative that didn't depend on gay panic and misogynistic stereotypes for its humor). But for those eagerly awaiting the next installment, the news of Gibson's departure is good news. Mel Gibson will be fine in the long run (provided he wants to be fine, I can't imagine that Jodie Foster or Richard Donner will give up on him anytime soon), and The Hangover 2 can continue to primarily be about The Hangover 2.

Scott Mendelson

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