The premise was simple: four guys journey to Vegas to toast their buddy into martial bliss only to experience the hangover from hell. As much as sex sells, so, too, does humorous debauchery, and The Hangover’s Wolfpack sold it well. Their comedic misfortune in the 2009 comedy hit was an original, no-holds-barred romp on the edge of depravity — a night most bachelors only dream of and one to which that audience flocked. Too bad the Wolfpack’s success merited a sequel that lacked one original bone in its drunken body, taking the boys to Bangkok for an adventure that blatantly mirrored the original in more than one way.

Now, as the Wolfpack’s saga comes to an end, director Todd Phillips attempts one last-ditch effort to send off his story with dignity in The Hangover Part III. And while it’s not more of the same as with its pandering predecessor, Phillips, instead, plays it safe and never gives enough. So safe in fact that he packs in just enough outlandish moments to fill a TV spot, but ultimately leaves his over–the-top franchise with a half-empty finale.

That lackluster feeling that sets in as the credits roll may result from Phillip’s inability to pinpoint what he wants from his final installment: another dangerous day in the life of these four friends or a sentimental look back at what has come before. Their current predicament finds the gang kidnapped and forced to track down their wily former adversary Leslie Chow (Ken Jeong), who, through a series of events that traces back to the original film, stole $21 million in gold bars from a dangerous gangster named Marcus (played to a brutish tee by John Goodman).

As evident by the fact that this film lacks the very thing it is named for, Part III lives in a world where the relatable notion of a hangover is the least of the Wolfpack’s worries. And that’s the problem. As a bold “what if” scenario, the original Hangover played on the intriguing concept of what would happen if your own alcohol-fueled party took one turn too many. It was an escapist comedy that careened at break-neck speed down a narrative path with genuinely hilarious and gut-busting turns. Yet now, after an ill-advised trip to Bangkok and their present position between two feuding gangsters, the simplicity of the Wolfpack’s initial and far-superior story is sacrificed for a high-concept excuse to up the ante.

The members of the Wolfpack, however, settle effortlessly back into their bewildered, “why is this happening again” looks that are appropriate no matter the situation. Once again, Phil (Bradley Cooper) acts as the seemingly pragmatic leader of the group with his good looks and confidence, while Stu (Ed Helms) continues to frantically react to everything happening and bears the brunt of much of the consequences (although, he did have his unfortunate face tattoo from Part II lasered off). Justin Bartha’s Doug is yet again benched early on as the action builds — now acting as Marcus’ collateral.

This time around, it is Zach Galifianakis’ still-unstable Alan at the center of the story, having gone off his meds and accidentally decapitated a pet giraffe before being escorted off to rehab, to which they are headed when the guys are intercepted. Sadly for the audience, this is the same Alan who drugged his friends in Vegas and befriended a smoking monkey. After three films, his blind ignorance and childish attitude, which once played as humorous and off-kilter, is now downright annoying and tired. This wildly immature Alan stands as the shining example of how the franchise has not grown wiser or more creative with time, but increasingly submissive to the belief that more of the same will suffice.

This mentality also befalls Jeong’s Chow, whose extreme and flamboyant behavior was savored in the original as a supporting character — a restraint that allowed the audience to appreciate each of his antics and one-liners. But as a central figure to Part III’s plot, we experience a case of Chow overdose, which kicks in quicker than you might expect. Regardless of whether he is flying off a building or smothering his prize-winning chicken, Chow no longer has the effect of spontaneity that he once did. Now, he simply wallows in overdone excess.

Phillips also has trouble remedying the tonal issues at play in Part III, which leave the viewer to question whether they should be laughing or crying. That is because sentiment plays a big role in the film as the gang travels paths already taken in search of Chow. Some of the nostalgia that manifests with the resurfacing of old characters (including Mike Epp’s drug-dealer Doug and Heather Graham’s now-former escort Jade) hits the right spot, bringing the franchise a satisfying full-circle feel (look for one surprising poignant moment when Allen is reunited with the baby from the original film). But the balancing act of outrageous and heartfelt is an odd combination for a series that unapologetically bathes in its own shamelessness. Audience members will find some of the nostalgic moments to be somewhat sweet, but is sappy sentimentality really what they want from their off-the-wall Hangover films?

As for the all-important laughs, it may be easy to muster a chuckle at the humor that pads the film, but you will be hard-pressed to find a joke worthy of a hearty laugh. Ironically, what stands as the film’s funniest moment comes during the credits and features Helms in an absolutely hilarious gag that is worth the price of admission alone. Elsewhere, Melissa McCarthy pops up in a brief role that compliments Galifianakis’, but even their interaction is mostly flat (including a cringe-worthy lollipop incident). The banter within the Wolfpack also seems to have grown stale, never maturing beyond one-upmanship that is barely more amusing than “Yo Momma” jokes.

Ultimately, that is what The Hangover franchise has become: a constant struggle to one-up itself. A simple hangover was where it started, but that could never sustain a sequel, let alone two. Luckily, the final (at least we hope) chapter of the Wolfpack saga does provide closure, albeit somewhat forced, for characters that really just wanted to have a good time in the first place. With the weight of a mammoth cinematic franchise off their backs, maybe now they can finally sober up.

Rating: 2 out of 4 stars

Featured image: (L-r) Zach Galifianakis as Alan, Bradley Cooper as Phil, Ed Helms as Stu in Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Legendary Pictures’ comedy “The Hangover Part III,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo: © 2013 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Legendary Pictures.

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