Saturday, November 5, 2011

On High: A VERY HAROLD & KUMAR 3D CHRISTMAS


Writers Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg have found the sweet spot for Harold & Kumar silliness and it only took a hit of Christmas to do so. (But, not even a week past Halloween, don’t you think it’s a little early for Yuletide in the multiplex?) The first film to feature the stoner pals was 2004’s Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, an ambling, crude film in which they were too high to find their way to hamburgers at White Castle without running into all kinds of problems. Was it funny? Some thought so. I found it had its charms, but, even at 88 minutes, it was a tad on the tiring side. Then came 2008’s Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay, which took away most of its predecessors defiantly ambitionless smallness and replaced it with self-important Bush-era satire that, while agreeable, sucked out much of what made the first film so low-key.

Now here we are with A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas, a title that seems to scream out that the screenwriters have gone further astray when in fact they’ve dialed back. As this picture begins, Harold and Kumar haven’t spoken for years. They’re living very different lives. Kumar (Kal Penn) lives in his old small apartment, constantly smoking weed with his new nerdy roommate (Amir Blumenfeld) and stewing, lamenting the loss of his relationship with his old girlfriend. Harold (John Cho), on the other hand, is a married banker trying desperately to make sure Christmas will be perfect for his wife (Paula Garcés) and her family. Not only will his very scary father-in-law (Danny Trejo!) be spending the holidays with them, but he’s also bringing the whole extended family along as well as the Christmas tree that he has personally grown for 12 years to be the perfect holiday adornment. Needless to say, Harold is finding full-fledged adulthood stressful.

As luck would have it, a giant joint addressed to Harold is delivered to the old apartment on Christmas Eve, so Kumar does the right thing and brings it over. Harold’s father-in-law has loaded up the whole family and driven them into town for midnight mass, leaving the tree in his son-in-law’s care, so he’s there alone to greet his old friend. As they haltingly reacquaint themselves, Kumar lights up the joint. Harold, who has long given up the habit, scolds him and tosses it out the window. A gust of wind flips it back into the house and burns down the tree. Now, the two guys have to head out and find a tree of the same size and perfection in order to save Harold’s reputation with his father-in-law.

It’s a plot that turns out to be perfectly pitched for these guys, with higher stakes than merely getting to White Castle, but not so overheated to include Guantanamo Bay. It also proves that these characters have a charming knack for finding trouble, even when they’re sober, at least some of the time. Their race to find a tree gathers reluctant support from Kumar’s roommate and one of Harold’s co-workers (Thomas Lennon) and his baby. Their difficult, but not impossible, task is interrupted by strange obstacles punctuated by bouts of bad taste. The search soon involves a car crash, the Russian Mafia, drugs, guns, random violence, a giant Claymation snowman, surprise encounters with old friends, beer pong, intimidating tree salesmen, Neil Patrick Harris, an elaborate song-and-dance number, a waffle-making robot, a painful recreation of A Christmas Story’s tongue-on-a-cold-pole scene recreated with an even more sensitive body part, and Santa Claus himself, complete with his flying reindeer. It’s gleefully goofy, with first-time director Todd Strauss-Schulson further enlivening the sometimes disgusting and, truth be told, often funny script by chucking things at the camera in 3D just to make sure we’ve gotten the full extent of the jokey concept.

This is a film that will go anywhere for a joke. But, unlike the first two, which felt blunter and coarser, this installment balances its crudeness with sweetness. This is a thoroughly, irreverently secular, spectacularly hard-R, Christmas movie that nonetheless, in its shocking, subversive way, reaffirms the basic meaning of the holiday. Beneath the non-stop crude references and raunchy dialogue, this is essentially a story about friendship and family and uses its holiday setting to help the characters learn to appreciate each other, reconcile their differences, and become better people in the process. In that way, it’s also a casually sweet riff on evolving male friendship. That may be the biggest surprise of all, that this loose, aimless, goofy movie with enough vulgarity to ensure it’s self-selecting audience will be a small one, is at its core just a particularly filthy spin on pure sentimentality. Harold and Kumar have (sort of) grown up! Like its predecessors, this third H&K adventure feels less than the sum of its riffs, but it hangs together better as a movie, complete with actual narrative momentum and the series’ highest rate of inspired scenes to insulting ones. Besides, can any movie that puts Danny Trejo in a Christmas sweater be all bad?

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