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Point-Counter-Point Review: 'A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas' A Funny 3D Blast Or A Lazy Gimmick?

Photo of Drew Taylor By Drew Taylor | The Playlist November 3, 2011 at 6:52AM

The unlikely third chapter in a highly unlikely franchise, "A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas," sees our favorite multi-culti stoner duo of Harold (John Cho) and Kumar (Kal Penn) taking on the merry yuletide spirit as only they could. And in a weird way, it makes perfect sense to pair the boys with Christmas, since for all their bad-ass, pan-Asian Cheech and Chong vibe, the 'Harold & Kumar' movies (2004's "Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle" and 2008's "Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay") have largely been sweet fables about the power of friendship and not the outrageous shock-fests they masquerade as. The third film is even sweeter, with a message about the importance of family and very few gags that anyone with a middle school education would consider taboo.
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The unlikely third chapter in a highly unlikely franchise, "A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas," sees our favorite multi-culti stoner duo of Harold (John Cho) and Kumar (Kal Penn) taking on the merry yuletide spirit as only they could. And in a weird way, it makes perfect sense to pair the boys with Christmas, since for all their bad-ass, pan-Asian Cheech and Chong vibe, the 'Harold & Kumar' movies (2004's "Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle" and 2008's "Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay") have largely been sweet fables about the power of friendship and not the outrageous shock-fests they masquerade as. The third film is even sweeter, with a message about the importance of family and very few gags that anyone with a middle school education would consider taboo.

And for the most part, "A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas" works, partially because the '3D' in the title gives them license to do some gimmicky drive-in stuff with the technology, and also because, in their self-reflexive, meta-textual way, the characters are able to talk about the 3D and make fun of it in some truly funny ways. In this sense, it's the most bonkers, 3D-for-3D's-sake movie since "Piranha 3D." It might be a collection of goofy-dumb (but three-dimensional) vignettes strung, like a set of limp Christmas lights, very loosely around an anemic plot – but what were the other movies?


It's been years since Harold and Kumar have seen each other – Harold is a Wall Street wank (a horde of protesters shout at his office; one has a placard decrying Oliver Stone's "Wall Street" sequel) with a hot Latina wife (Paula Garces) and a house in the suburbs, while Kumar is stuck in his ways, slovenly, living alone and buying weed off a department store Santa (Patton Oswalt, very briefly). A mysterious package arrives on Kumar's doorstep addressed to Harold, so he takes a little trip to visit his old friend and deliver the package. Mayhem, as tends to be the case with these two, ensues, with Kumar burning down the Christmas tree Maria's father has brought for the holiday. Therein lies the kernel of "plot" in "A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas," with Harold and Kumar running around Manhattan trying to find a suitable tree replacement. That's pretty much it.

Honestly, though, if you're looking for narrative tightness, you've clearly shown up for the wrong movie or perhaps drunkenly stumbled into the wrong theater while looking for "Real Steel." The series thus far has been defined by a shaggy picaresque sense of adventure (even the last entry, as forgettable as it was, had a couple of killer set pieces, like the "bottomless party") and the energy has been amped up considerably for this go-around, enlivened, it seems, by the spaciousness and possibility of 3D. In other words: this iteration, as directed by first timer Todd Strauss-Schulson, is really zippy.

Among the myriad of (admittedly fleeting) pleasures are: a moment when Harold and Kumar are transformed into claymation characters out of some deranged Rankin-Bass special that never existed; Elias Koteas showing up as a violent Ukrainian mob boss convinced that Harold and Kumar have made moves on his virginal daughter; a prolonged musical number starring Neil Patrick Harris (and the accompanying flashback/dream sequence explaining how he survived the second movie) and a bizarre, but super-involved subplot about Kumar's relationship with a tiny robotic chef called Waffle-Bot (don't ask).

There are plenty of jokes about drugs (exemplified by Harold's new best friend, played by Tom Lennon, and his young daughter's exposure to a variety of substances) and sex (if you've ever wondered what a sexy nun really looks like, well, her pubic hair is styled into the shape of a cross, obviously) but they flit by with greater ease than those in the belabored sequel. Part of the reason that one didn't quite work was because it was a dumb stoner comedy dressed up like a barbed political satire that was really just a dumb stoner comedy; part three dispenses with any pretenses of being anything other than what it is which, it turns out, is very, very stupid.

But that's not a particularly bad thing. You'll laugh often (and heartily), both at the assault-like use of 3D (this thing would make even less sense in 2D) and the genial camaraderie that the two stars share. There's nothing particularly new in this outing (well, besides the claymation cock) and there are some that will feel that the threadbare franchise has run its course. But it's hard to argue with Kal Penn and John Cho. It's a whole lot of fun to watch the two actors get back into the groove of playing their stoner counterparts, and some good zings are wrung out of their respective in-between-movies careers (both "Star Trek" and Kal Penn's brief stint in the Obama White House are mentioned). No one is going to mistake these guys for great actors, but they truly commit, and it's hard not to get a little buzz off of their infectious energy. They're the movie's greatest high. [C+]

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While most chide it as a sub-par effort (including some Playlist staffers), "Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay" is an underrated comedy. Oh sure, it's not fantastic and it's a far cry from a comedic work of art, but it has its absurd, wild laughs, and Ed Helms, Rob Corddry and Neil Patrick Harris are hilarious in their supporting roles. Also, as silly as it is, 'Escape From Guantanamo Bay,' has a story. Yes, the cross-country adventures of a pot-smoking duo as they try to outrun authorities who suspect them of being terrorists on their way to Amsterdam is not going to win anyone any Academy Awards, but at least there's a logical A to B to C. Even if you believe it's an unfunny effort (which is surely your prerogative), at the very least it's a cogent one, even in spite of the ludicrous moments in the picture.

Comparatively, “A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas,” is a brutally thin story stitched around meaningless visual gimmicks. Not so much a plot, premise or even a cash-grabbing excuse to reteam Harold and Kumar again, ‘3D Christmas’ is a lazy and cheap excuse to throw 3D into the mix – but not even really for monetary reasons. Directed by inventive commercial director Todd Strauss-Schulson, ‘3D Christmas’ feels like the first valid attempt at creating a comedy specifically made for 3D. The film appears to be authored in 3D (James Cameron would approve) and the comedy seems creatively designed to work with 3D, rather than the usual reverse approach which is: make a film, slap on some conversion 3D to make it extra goofy and haul in the extra dough.

While this is slightly admirable and all, the concept generally fails the film miserably. You can practically time on your watch every 10-15 minutes for all the “insert special visual 3D gag here” set pieces, and they become tiresome, especially when the story is painfully empty and the only thing you have to look forward to is the next 3D gimmick scene. Animation is employed (essentially so they can show a cock), there’s a dance sequence, a Santa Claus moment, a 3D slow-motion visual trickery scene (think the bar scene in “The Other Guys”), but none of this stuff is even remotely amusing (nor very memorable).

And sure, since when have ‘Harold & Kumar’ films ever been about story? Good point, but the filmmakers here aren’t even trying to hide the fact that they don’t care. The thinking seems to be, “This is going to be so wild, crazy and spectacular looking, and you’re not even going to mind about the story!” Instead, you get a slop of a plot, some last-minute third act “sweetness” moments with the Asian-American friends to try and remind the audience that this film has been about more than just babies hoovering-up cocaine, or 3D eggs hitting the screen. The crux of the tale is supposed to be about Harold and Kumar growing apart. The duo haven’t seen each other in years because Harold has become a responsible Wall Street guy and Kumar continues to be a useless stoner whose girlfriend has left him. While these tensions occasionally flare up during “the adventure,” consisting of Harold calling Kumar irresponsible and Kumar calling Harold square, all of it just feels like obligatory scenes to remind the audience that these guys actually don’t like each other in this episode. The rest of the time, it’s basically business as usual.

Thomas Lennon and Amir Blumenfeld play two new, enabling friends in the picture. Lennon is Harold’s nerdy foil – his role consists of worrying every time his baby ingests some new drug (zzzz) and Blumenfeld’s character plays Kumar’s even-more irresponsible friend. His goofy, comedic stylings consist of a lot of wide-grinned smiling and this essentially is supposed to make him amusing (seriously, the only logical explanation of his appearance in the film is his possession of pornographic photos of ‘H&K’ creators Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg doing something illegal or embarrassing).

Yes, there are a few funny moments, the Waffle Bot robot subplot is genuinely amusing and the creepy robot itself that is in love with Kumar is hilarious. Those wildly absurd moments are laugh out loud funny and some of the Neil Patrick Harris moments are comical too, but this is what YouTube scenes were invented for. The rest of the picture is largely a chore, the stupidly juvenile humor of ‘Harold & Kumar’ (which was generally its strength), is largely replaced with preposterous drug-fueled visual jokes. Oh look, the baby is high on cocaine so she’s running up the walls! Yes, some of that stuff was pretty amusing in the R-rated trailer, but like the mistake that most comedies make, almost all the good moments in the film are in that trailer. If you’ve seen that and chuckled to yourself, save your money now.

What “A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas” aims to be is subversive; a wildly absurdist and nonsensical treat and something you would never expect in a mainstream movie! Insert eye-roll here. Instead, it’s a self-satisfied, mostly unfunny wank off that will disappoint even the most casual movie-goer with low expectations. Harold and Kumar deserve better. As Neil Patrick Harris says, “See you in the fourth one?” [D] -- RP

Watch this instead (considering the time spent, it's much more worth it): Harold and "Kumar Yuletide Jams" on Funny or Die Bring the Lolz

Harold & Kumar's Yuletide Jamz from John Cho

This article is related to: Films, Review, A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas


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