November 9, 2011

Kush and Christmas Spirit

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I guess I am just not yet in the Christmas spirit. Mere days after Halloween arrives the latest, and likely last, chapter in the adventures of our favorite New Jersey potheads, now draped in holly and a shameless gimmick. A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas aims to instill some good-hearted holiday cheer while simultaneously upping the raunch factor. The 3D, smack in the title, is overused and shallow in its implementation, but, at the very least, has fun with the three dollar ticket surcharge. This clash of goals results in an uneven film that takes the easy way out at the end, though there are some fleeting festivities on the way there.

The film opens, of all things, with Kumar nut-tapping a mall Santa and buying  reefer from him — in that order. Santa (a regrettably short cameo from Patton Oswalt) and Kumar (Kal Penn) promptly light up with a yuletide pipe in slow motion as the pot smoke from their mouths wafts into the audience and glistens in 3D, all over glorious church bells and sweeping choral surges. Cut to title. It’s overproduced, excessive and still delivering the laughs.

It takes too long to reach those highs (don’t even…) again, for Harold and Kumar have grown apart. Harold (John Cho) married his love Maria (Paula Garcés) since the picture-perfect ending of the last film and left his pot habit and Kumar on the curb. Kumar found a new tool of a friend in Adrian (CollegeHumor’s Amir Blumenfeld), while Harold did not fare better with white collar punching bag Todd (Thomas Lennon). A magical blunt appears and reunites the two estranged buds, and the festivities truly commence.

Placing the two protagonists in random, dangerous situations and settings is a hallmark of the series. These are the dudes who crashed into George W. Bush’s ranch and blazed with ‘ol Dubya back in Escape from Guantanamo Bay. Or the guys who reached White Castle by hang glider and cheetah. This constant game of escalating, self-applied lunacy still runs the proceedings, but the stakes are not set as high as they have been, nor are any of the precarious circumstances as outlandish or impressive. A bloodthirsty Ukranian mobster — played by Elias Koteas, likely filling in for the notable absence of Chris Meloni who stole scenes in the previous films as Freakshow and the Grand Wizard of the KKK — serves as the catalyst for much of the mayhem. His Eastern European background and complementary violent behavior are traits used to death in the last decade; the character is generic and goes nowhere. Another questionable character is the WaffleBot, a Hitchhiker’s Guide-esque robot that can deliver a stunning haymaker or incapacitating shot of boiling syrup to an enemy’s face … and cook up a mean batch of waffles. It is a plot device that is decidedly unfunny and yet another example of the robot deus ex machina also seen in this year’s Horrible Bosses.

But perhaps I am being too tough on this film. It is, after all, a Harold & Kumar movie, and stupidity and hilarity go hand in hand. Neil Patrick Harris no longer sneaks in for a clandestine cameo but is centered prominently on the poster, a full asset to the feature. That being said, he only appears in one scene, but what an elaborately staged production it is. A Rockettes-style Christmas dance with Harold and Kumar decked in nutcracker garb, this sequence stands in stark contrast to the everyday surroundings of the first film. NPH plays on his own gay image by suggesting that he is actually straight and uses his assumed sexuality to get creepily close to unsuspecting girls. It is borderline homophobic and certainly offensive, but it would not be a Harold & Kumar film without such blatant, unapologetic cheek.

Such casual bigotry, racism and otherwise culturally insensitive jabs carry the film when other devices fail. Rosenberg and Goldstein, the latter now (incompletely) converted to Catholicism, serve as the Jewish stereotypes with which writers Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg clearly have fun lampooning their people.  An encounter with two Christmas tree salesmen masquerading as hoodlums functions as humorous racial commentary, a staple of sorts in the series. Danny Trejo, Machete badass now tucked in a festive sweater that cannot hide that scarred mug, drops offhand remarks at Harold’s Korean heritage as Maria’s protective father. Pedophiliac priests, promiscuous nuns, female rapists, a bloody Santa, a sexually incompetent Jesus Christ, giant clay penises and feces-flinging Wall Street protestors (timely!) are all thrown into the mix. Add in the running gag that involves exposing every drug in existence to a baby, to the point where it is literally bouncing off the walls, and you have about the whole spectrum of vulgarity covered.

Saying all that, it still saddens me to label this film as a disappointment. The few clever moments of situational comedy work in isolation. The predictable, sappy ties to the story do not. The 3D, so unabashedly unironic, so artistically trivial, stands in the middle. Yes, a beer pong ball hurtling towards the audience or a flaming Christmas tree thrown out a window, all milked in lethargic slow motion and glossed over with a CGI finish, are enticing, playful visuals. 3D-ing every swift movement or action, however, just for the eye candy of it, cheapens and leans towards artificiality. With the inherent draining of colors 3D glasses provide, the viewing experience grows dull and fake; the gimmick fades.

At the core of this movie, behind the visual dressing and uninspired setpieces, lies a good heart. It is a story of reconciling friendship and loving family. How counterproductive, then, that throughout the whole duration I wondered whether this would be more enjoyable whilst high. The rather vocal roars of guys in front of me spoke to this silent understanding. A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas will likely close the series, for John Cho is nearing 40 and Kal Penn has graduated to the White House, onto fairly serious matters (there is a rather glaring, but necessary, joke at his tenure here). Once this movie hits DVD and cable, stripped of 3D, richer in color, the last Harold & Kumar, just like the first, will survive through repeated viewings by giggling, very happy stoners.

Original Author: Zachary Zahos