It’s the afternoon of Dec. 24 in the lively, ripely, blithely obscene A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas. In front of a handsome house in a New York City suburb, six-foot candy canes ornament either side of the flagstone path to the front door. Inside, in the living room, stands a fine “faux” Christmas tree. Harold (John Cho) has finally achieved the serenity — a good job, a loving wife, a nice piece of property — that had eluded him in his days with Kumar (Kal Penn). Harold was always the normal one, the superego to Kumar’s voracious pharmaceutical id. His Indian-American, not American-Indian, friend would get kicked out of med school for failing a drug test, then lurch off on arrant pilgrimages in search of the perfect joint. And Harold the Korean-American lawyer would tag along — to a White Castle in the 2004 film and to Guantanamo prison and an encounter with George W. Bush in the 2008 sequel.
He’d go on these trips because he and Kumar were pals, and because every movie-comedy duo needs a straight man, an interlocutor for the more repressed members of the audience and a reluctant participant in chaos. On meeting Harold, one friend of Kumar’s says, “You never told me Harold was Asian. I always pictured him as an old white guy.” Exactly: he’s the grownup, Kumar the reckless kid. But opposites also repel, and years later the two amigos are barely on speaking terms.
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On this family-est of holidays, Harold is preparing for a visit from the Latino relatives of his wife Maria (Paula Garcés). Her tough father (Danny Trejo) approves of the candy canes but insists that the fake tree be replaced by a 12-foot Douglas fir that he has lovingly grown for this very occasion.
It takes no Judd Apatow to predict what happens next. The candy canes and the tree come down, along with every totem of Harold’s propriety and the Yule season’s piety. This is the immutable law of farce: all things precious must be destroyed. Sure enough, anarchy instantly rules. Within minutes of Kumar’s arrival at Harold’s home — bearing a mysterious package that, when opened, reveals a massive marijuana stogie — the tree is in flames, the bay window smashed and Harold’s happy domesticity in tatters.
The Motion Picture Association of America has awarded H&K 3D Xmas an R rating “for strong crude and sexual content, graphic nudity, pervasive language, drug use and some violence.” That’s the merest précis of the movie’s offenses, to which we could add naked nuns in the shower, topless angels flanking a dude Jesus in Heaven, a cocaine-fueled infant, rude jokes about blacks, Jews, Koreans, Indians and Ukrainians and, for Christmas, a foul-mouth Santa who gets shot in the face. Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg, writers of all three H&K films, must have made a list of the major Christmas movies (A Christmas Carol) and TV shows (the Rankin-Bass Frosty the Snowman), checked it twice and worked hard to find scurrilous or sacrilegious twists — like the scene from A Christmas Story where Ralphie’s tongue gets stuck to an icy pole. No prize for guessing which of Harold’s body parts suffers the same indignity.
In fond tribute to old horror series (Jaws, Amityville, Friday the 13th) whose only inspiration for their third installments was that they be shot in 3-D, H&K 3D Xmas hurls and sprays all manner of solid, liquids and gases at the camera and into the audience: bong smoke, cocaine snowstorms and pellets, baby poo and other bodily emissions. In a drug-dream in stop-motion Claymation (animated in the Rankin-Bass style by Fantastic Mr. Fox co-director Mark Gustafson), hot dogs and many a Star of David splatters the patrons; and a penis grows to Godzilla size, to be used as a truncheon to pound the sensitivity out of any scrupulous moviegoer. The film’s smartest sight gag: when something is thrown at the camera, the lens appears to crack.
First-time-feature director Todd Strauss-Schulson, from MTV, has the right attitude for low comedy. He doesn’t (or maybe can’t) distinguish between what’s funny and what isn’t, devoting the same slapdash energy to both kinds and figuring the audience will decide. He also got his stars to behave and misbehave with gusto, as if they weren’t sick of a star-making franchise they may have long ago outgrown. (Outside the series, Cho played Hikaru Sulu in JJ Abrams’ revived Star Trek; and Penn, under his birth name Kalpen Modi, has worked as a liaison officer in the Obama White House.)
As predictable and welcome as Frank Sinatra’s guest spots on Dean Martin’s Christmas shows is Neil Patrick Harris’ recurring presence in the H&K films. This time he’s the star of a Radio City Music Hall-style holiday show, flanked by Rockettes as he sings “Deck the Halls,” with a knowing eyebrow raised on the line “Don we now our gay apparel.” NPH admirers will be aghast to learn here that the star’s homosexuality is a ruse. In his Music Hall dressing room he persuades a buxom chorine to undress and starts rogering her from behind. (She: “But I thought you were gay.” NPH: “I am gay—gay for that [female kitten between your legs].” It’s a genially outrageous turn that won’t scare Tony or Emmy show producers from hiring him as host. Harris mustn’t think it harms his image one bit; his last line to the camera is “We’ll see you in the fourth one.”
A fourth Harold & Kumar? Who knows. But the third one finally wears down the disapproval of reluctant viewers with its cheerful demeanor and a late heart transplant. Sentimentality often creeps belatedly into farces, but usually by knocking over the lamps in its clumsiness (cf. almost any Adam Sandler movie). Here, because of the residual chemistry between Cho and Penn, fellow feeling is part of the gestalt.
Never to be mistaken for a Christmas classic — or even, strictly speaking, a good movie — H&K 3D Xmas obeys one other solid comedy rule: that after things are broken, they must be repaired and restored. The lads are reunited with their ladies; the father-in-law accepts his daughter’s beau. At the end, Bing Crosby fills the theater with “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” as Harold and Kumar sit on Harold’s front doorstep and the camera pulls back to reveal those candy-cane decorations remaining neatly in place. You see? Even a silly exercise in anarchy can be a respecter of a few Christmas traditions.