The original “Harold & Kumar” was a typical, yet entertaining, stoner comedy that respected its characters’ goals and conflicts. It seamlessly flowed between lowbrow laughs and nuanced racial commentary. Today, it’s still one of the genre’s best.
The sequel, “Escape From Guantanamo Bay,” occasionally mistook excess for hilarity and got lost in its political musings, but otherwise stayed true to the goofy, laidback tone of the original. We were reunited with our pot-loving heroes, Harold Lee (John Cho) and Kumar Patel (Kal Penn) and taken on an inferior, but still satisfying adventure.
All this is irrelevant in “A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas.” The Korean-Indian duo’s third outing plays like a caricature of its predecessors, an ironic fate for a series devoted to lampshading and deconstructing all stereotypes. It is exploitative of its brand name, cruel to its characters and funny in the shallowest, most transitory sense. You’ll forget most of the film an hour after leaving the theatre.
Years have passed, along with Harold and Kumar’s friendship. When we first see them on Christmas Eve, Kumar is reeling from his second breakup with girlfriend Vanessa (Danneel Harris) and rooming with the dweeby, virgin-obsessed Todd (Thomas Lennon), while Harold finds his life threatened by his aggressive stepfather, Mr. Perez (Danny Trejo).
Perez wants his daughter and son-in-law to celebrate Christmas the right way, with a lavish Christmas tree he spent seven years growing. Harold promises with all his heart to decorate and care for it himself. Minutes later, Kumar shows up, the tree is obliterated and the former friends celebrate their reunion by running through New York, searching for the perfect Christmas tree.
The set-up honors the formula of previous Harold & Kumar films, and we’ve seen most of the story beats before: the hot girls, loads of weed and racial jokes. Yet so much has changed. We don’t follow characters so much as a string of disjointed, gross-out scenes, which just happen to have humans tucked somewhere inside them.
Racial commentary gives way to unqualified stereotypes and misogyny. Pushing buttons is the name of the game here, and as such we have subplots about a baby consuming illicit substances, a strip-club version of heaven and Harold getting his nether regions stuck to a cold pole.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with scat humor, nudity and gratuitous profanity, but Harold & Kumar Christmas seals its mediocrity by replacing all its characters’ personalities with these adolescent elements. Harold’s wife Maria (Paula Garcés) was a quiet, unassuming woman. We admired her as much as Harold. Here, she’s a lingerie-clad succubus, obsessed with being impregnated. This is the only role the film gives her.
Neil Patrick Harris, likewise, must have exhausted all his good humor mocking homosexuality and women in his trademark cameo. I understand the screenwriters had to maintain NPH’s story persona as a wild, girl-chasing sex god, but did that really require him telling a girl to “shut up” as he nearly raped her? Shortly after telling his real-life husband to not be so “faggy.”
No matter how cynical the previous films got, they never insulted characters that weren’t already racist or hateful. They told stories about humans that appeared real, even while they went from one ridiculous scene to another. Harold & Kumar Christmas missed the memo somewhere down the road.
You might be surprised to hear, then, that I enjoyed parts of the movie. Danny Trejo is wonderfully cast in a role that mirrors NPH’s “actor playing exaggerated version of self” shtick. There’s a funny racial take on the “bad cop/good cop” routine with two African-Americans who own a tree lot and an LSD trip that turns into a Rankin/Bass claymation sketch provides amusing results.
The film has fun with its self-aware use of 3-D, even as it hypocritically uses the extra dimension to add to ticket prices. Mostly, Harold & Kumar Christmas is carried on the backs of Kal Penn and John Cho, who resist the script’s condescending attitude and retain their characters’ charm.
If you judge Harold & Kumar Christmas on its own merits, its amusing in parts, but mostly dull and misanthropic. Judged as a holiday movie, it also fails: the Christmas elements are included solely to be tainted, and it includes too many references to current events — Occupy Wall Street, the Karate Kid remake, Kal Penn’s stint as White House worker — to survive beyond this Christmas season. And if you dare compare it within the franchise, there’s no contest. I left the theatre planning to write a pleasantly ambivalent review. Then I revisited “Go to White Castle” and “Escape from Guantanamo Bay.” I saw how far we’ve fallen.