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Review: Jokes fly, but don't travel well, in 'Lost in Thailand'

The indefinable qualities of Chinese humor might be difficult for Americans to grasp in this across-the-ocean hit.

February 10, 2013|By Mark Olsen, Los Angeles Times
  • A scene from "Lost in Thailand."
A scene from "Lost in Thailand." (Handout )

It's one of those Hollywood axioms: Comedy doesn't travel. Meaning, American comedy stars often do not reap box office success in other countries. So it makes for a fascinating experiment for U.S. viewers to approach "Lost in Thailand" knowing that the film has been a wild, runaway hit in China, a box-office smash there on the scale of "Avatar."

Watching the strained high jinks of "Thailand" from, say, a lonely theater in Burbank might provide some insight to what it's like watching Kevin James or Steve Carell from Beijing or Brussels. You can sense that someone somewhere might find it funny, and it's not that anything is lost in translation, particularly. It's just that by our quote-unquote standards of contemporary comedy, it plays as uneven at best and often just flattens out for long jokeless stretches.

Two slick Chinese business rivals, Gao Bo (Huang Bo) and Xu Lang (Xu Zheng, also director and co-writer), are competing over the rights to a renewable energy solution known as Supergas and need the approval of a shareholder staying at a remote monastery in Thailand. This sets them on a slapstick misadventure, racing each other to get there first, with goofball tourist Wang Bao (Wang Baoqiang) tagging along. Phones are lost, computers broken, identities confused, massages given and all manner of misadventure ensues. (The ladyboy gags are kept to a chaste minimum.)

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Though many will likely want to compare the film to "The Hangover Part II," the movie is more akin to the Robert Downey Jr. and Zach Galifianakis road trip flick "Due Date," in which an uptight businessman chances across a misfit companion as his travel plans are thrown off-track. (Imagine Xu in the Downey role and Wang in the Galifianakis part and you've got much of the movie right there.)

One way "Lost in Thailand" does track with the "Hangover" sequel is that the Chinese movie is a follow-up to the 2010 film "Lost on Journey" and like "Hangover II" takes place mostly in Thailand.

Setting the story in Southeast Asia means that for American audiences, "Lost in Thailand" can't even function as much of an insightful angle onto contemporary Chinese life and attitudes, though there are numerous references to the micro-blogging platform Weibo (known as the Chinese Twitter) and a brief cameo by star Fan Bingbing as herself.

A Thai cabdriver declares the Chinese are always in a hurry, to which Xu fires back that Thai people are lazy, and that's about as sophisticated as the film's cultural crossover gets. There is an in-passing punch line reference to abortion that one would certainly never find in a mainstream American film. Overall, however, "Lost in Thailand" points out how even in our global, tech-connected world, individual cultures maintain an idiosyncratic specificity in their tastes for comedy. In this way, our small world is still a big, funny place.

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'Lost in Thailand'

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes

Playing: In limited release

mark.olson@latimes.com

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