When show business types set out to appeal directly to children, they often don’t stop until they’ve pandered so hard that they’ve succeeded in insulting kids in the process. See Jar Jar Binks. Or the Ewoks. Or The Brady Bunch’s Cousin Oliver. Or The Simpsons’ Poochie, the outrageous, in-your-face, rapping, surfing, original Kung-Fu hippie from Gangsta City.
The same holds true of 3-D. When it was resurrected a little over a decade ago, I was geeked about the return of a format I associated with the airy, goofy escapism of my childhood, both because the early 1980s, when I was a boy, marked the last big 3-D boom (as seen in such movies as Jaws 3) but also because, with its whirring, zooming, eye-dazzling spectacle, the 3-D format has special appeal for kids (and those who enjoy the practice of smoking marijuana). This helps explain why 3-D is more likely to be employed in an animated film or a superhero movie pitched to younglings than in, say, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.
It did not take long for 3-D to go from delighting children and inner children to insulting them. The thinking went from, “Why should this be 3-D?” to “Why the hell shouldn’t this be 3-D?” seemingly overnight. The wave of 3-D movies that followed in the wake of Avatar’s record breaking success didn’t just fail to advance the technology; they failed to succeed even as a gimmick for children and stoners. They failed as art, but they weren’t enthusiastically, energetically artless enough to be fun.
I came to love it when 3-D was employed in cheesy and pandering ways, like when platoons of bubbles and balloons soared towards the audience during the big production number in Step Up 3-D, one of the rare films to actually justify the expense and inconvenience of it. And when Step Up 3-D is damn near the gold standard for what can be done with the format seemingly all of Hollywood suddenly decided should be ubiquitous, something has clearly gone awry.
“Kumar looks a little like a hipster hobo, and his mind is focused on getting stoned.”
With the exception of outliers like Gravity and Guardians Of The Galaxy, not a whole lot of good came out of the last big 3-D boom, but I am glad that it coincided with the deathless Harold & Kumar saga, and the cross-pollination of the two resulted in 2011’s A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas.
Now this is a film that understands and respects the true value and importance of 3-D, most notably in its ability to throw all sorts of crazy stuff at the screen and the audience either in wicked cool slow motion or super-fast in a way destined to delight the deeply stoned and moderately baked alike.
A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas isn’t enormously fun despite its use of 3-D in such a cheesy, ham-fisted way: it’s enormously fun precisely because its 3-D is so cheesy and ham-fisted. It understands that 3-D can be used to create vivid and amazingly detailed alien worlds beyond imagination, but more importantly, that it can be used to show a Santa Claus played by Patton Oswalt blow pot smoke rings at the screen, or have Danny Trejo ejaculate on the Christmas tree of his dreams in all three dimensions, as baby Jesus intended when he invented Christmas and 3-D in the same youthful frenzy of inspiration, then waited two thousand and eleven years for both of his creations to live up to their extraordinary potential.
There are a number of meta jokes about 3-D in Christmas, from characters pondering whether the medium had already jumped the shark at that point (it had) to an uptight buddy played by Thomas Lennon — in a delightful homage to Jack Lemmon — explaining that he’s in charge of his progeny for the day thanks to it being “3-D” (Daddy-Daughter Day). But really, the film seems to find the idea pretty damn hilarious that a franchise that began as a purposefully modest quest for two stoners to find sub-par meat products to shove in their impaired gullets would, seven years later, be using the same technology as Avatar or the latest mega-budget Marvel or CGI animated movie. More importantly, it’s able to make the idea of a 3-D stoner Christmas comedy funny to audiences as well.
A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas benefits from the seven years that have passed since 2004’s Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle. Harold (John Cho) and Kumar’s (Kal Penn, who took a break from his job in the Obama administration to reprise his role here) lives have taken them in such different directions that their friendship is more of a complicated memory than it is an ongoing concern.
Kumar has defiantly refused to grow up, and after failing in his bid to become a doctor for predictably weed-related reasons, he has seemingly embraced the grand gestalt of giving up. With his shaggy beard, apathy and weed-fueled gut, and stupid winter hat, he looks a little like a hipster hobo, and while everyone else’s thoughts are with family as Christmas approaches, his mind is monomaniacally focused on getting stoned. When his girlfriend tells him she’s pregnant, something she clearly hopes will kick-start the long overdue process of growing up, he handles it poorly.
Harold, meanwhile, suffers from an antithetical set of problems. If anything, he’s too grown up, and he’s traded in his slacker-stoner ways for a well-paying but soulless Wall Street job and a wife whose Christmas-obsessed father (Danny Trejo) makes no secret of his dislike for his son-in-law.
“A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas is animated by a sense of infinite possibilities.”
Once best buds, the pair’s lives have led them on vastly different paths until one day the mysterious gift of a joint addressed to Harold but delivered to Kumar’s apartment serves as the catalyst for these former friends to reunite. The Harold & Kumar movies cast serious actors instead of comedians and in their first scene together, Penn and Cho nail the fumbling awkwardness of two people who were once good friends attempting to reconnect with a bond they’re understandably concerned may not exist anymore.
The mysterious joint brings them together even further when it’s hurled out a window by an indignant Harold, who does not smoke anymore, and boomerangs back into Harold’s home, setting his Christmas tree ablaze. Terrified of his father-in-law’s reaction if he even attempts a satisfying Christmas without an appropriately epic tree, Harold then finds himself reuniting with his estranged friend on a journey through the night to find and bring back a majestic tree.
This quest, as heroic and historic in its own right as the journey to procure sliders in the original, leads to a gauntlet of wacky tableaus involving an enraged Russian mobster with a sexually voracious virgin daughter; a friend who accidentally gets his daughter high on pot and cocaine; a pair of Christmas tree salesman (one played by RZA) locked in a good cop/bad cop dynamic; and perhaps most auspiciously, a Claymation sequence during which a deeply f—ed up Harold and Kumar imagine that they are being chased by an evil giant snowman monster who destroys much of New York in hilariously graphic and over the top fashion.
A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas is animated by a sense of infinite possibilities. After all, the rules are different both on Christmas and when you’re messed up on various illegal mind-altering substances, so why not include a pot-dealing mall Santa played by Patton Oswalt (who deals in such strains as “Rudolph The Red Eyed Reindeer” and “It’s a Weederful Life”), a guest appearance by Jesus, and a central supporting turn by Waffle-Bot, a heroic waffle-making robot that may have a crush on Kumar, or maybe just really likes him?
It just wouldn’t be a Harold & Kumar movie without Neil Patrick Harris (really, it should be Harold & Kumar & Neil but Harris apparently isn’t bucking for star billing) and sure enough, deep into their journey, Harold and Kumar run into him while he’s rehearsing a big Christmas extravaganza, and he gives them crucial assistance when not fiending for crack cocaine or trying to seduce a chorus girl.
In the seven years between White Castle and 3D Christmas, Harris went from being the has-been from that teen doctor show to a national institution. The film has to deal with Harris’ fame and household name status, and its answer is to turn his very public real-life homosexuality on its head by depicting him not just as an inveterate heterosexual, but as a deranged, borderline feral sex freak who probably belongs in jail rather than at the very apex of the socioeconomic ladder. The man branded a prostitute in the last film, for the love of god. How do you outdo that?
“Harris delights here in subverting his wholesome image, really tearing into wonderfully filthy lines.”
Harris delights here in subverting his wholesome image, really tearing into wonderfully filthy lines like “Clay [Aiken]’s the biggest cooze-hound I know. He gets mad gash,” and “I am gay, gay for that p—y.” He also gets the full star treatment here, playing both the razzle-dazzle real-life NPH, who delights his adoring public in a big Christmas live spectacular, and an insane, over-the-top parody of show-business decadence, a man so debauched that, after getting murdered in the last movie, he’s kicked out of heaven in this movie for stealing Jesus’ chicks. As is invariably the case, Harris gets the best lines, like when he says of his posthumous trip to heaven, “Chicks were hot. The music was sick. There were lasers! It was like being famous in the early 1990s.” He’s not onscreen for long but he makes every filthy line, lascivious leer, and outsized gesture count.
With a little help from Harris and a little more from Jolly Old Saint Nick, Harold And Kumar save the day. The film follows a predictable arc as Harold learns to loosen up a little while simultaneously standing up to Trejo’s glowering patriarch, and Kumar learns the value and necessity of growing up and embracing responsibility.
But if Christmas ends in a predictable place, the journey to get there is unexpectedly funny, sweet, and rife with comic invention. A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas is at once a twinkly, shiny 3-D spectacle and a cheeky, meta parody of twinkly, shiny 3-D spectacles.
It’s a testament to how extensively the film makes shameless use of the format that on my 2-D laptop screen, Christmas still felt infinitely more 3-D than 90 percent of the films I’ve seen on an actual 3-D movie screen. Harris teases another entry in the Harold & Kumar saga when he tells the titular duo he’ll see them in “the fourth one,” but Christmas would be a fine way for the franchise, which has gone much further than anyone had any right to expect, to end.
Christmas is a holly jolly tribute to the glory and child-like wonder of 3-D that also illustrates the absurdity of other, lesser films misusing the format for less inspired reasons, like world-building and chases and similar nonsense.
My Certification: Fresh
Tomatometer: 68 percent
Follow Nathan Rabin on Twitter: @NathanRabin