A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas Takes the Series to New Lows, and the Usual Highs

Perverting and honoring Christmas, the third installment in the Harold and Kumar series hits theatres nationwide today.
Perverting and honoring Christmas, the third installment in the Harold and Kumar series hits theatres nationwide today.

​After the biting social commentary of Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle (2004) and the political satire of Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay (2008), says John Cho (Harold himself, visiting ASU for a Q&A with Kumar's Kal Penn on Oct. 24), "the most radical move was to do a very traditional movie." That's exactly what A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas (out in theaters today) is, he explains: both a perversion of and an homage to the traditional Christmas film.

Cho and Penn's chemistry in the films -- so responsible for their success -- clearly spills over to real life. The two play off each other seamlessly, even more so because Cho, the straight man of the film's comic duo who gets his inspiration from James Stewart and Tom Hanks, is in person more of a second comedian. 

Sophisticated and studied, he can talk about the original, radical idea of having non-white actors in leading man roles, and how Hollywood has continued to evolve since the first film (as he says, "You're welcome, America."), but he's just as quick to add - after a well-timed beat - "Plus there's boobies, sorry."

Christmas gets perverted and Neil Patrick Harris steals the show again after the jump.

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The problem is that their witty banter in person is funnier than much of the dialogue in A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas. With so many comedies turning increasingly to improvisation (think of the Judd Apatow crowd and anything with Will Ferrell), we would expect the franchise to make better use of the talent's natural ability. Unfortunately, as Cho and Penn explain, each of the films is operating on a low budget. This means they have the money for fewer takes, so when the camera turns on, they need to have the script down; there just isn't a budget to keep the camera rolling while they try out new material.

That doesn't mean A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas won't be a well-received gift by fans of the franchise: The scenes with the old gang from the first two films are still delightful (wait 'til you see what David Krumholtz's Goldstein has been up to in the six years that have passed in the lives of the characters since the last film). And then there are the ridiculously funny montages, like when Harold and Kumar imagine the world around them in claymation, or Kumar unveils his brilliant plan (involving an altar boy pillow fight) to steal a Christmas tree from a church.

Asked what the best part of doing a series of films is, John Cho stares off into space for a moment. "Millions and millions of dollars," he says. Kal Penn raises an eyebrow: "You must be thinking of your other series."
Asked what the best part of doing a series of films is, John Cho stares off into space for a moment. "Millions and millions of dollars," he says. Kal Penn raises an eyebrow: "You must be thinking of your other series."

But really the best scenes of the film - the stocking stuffers you've been dreaming about - are the scenes with Neil Patrick Harris, reprising his role as, as Cho would say, both a perversion of and an homage to himself. In a film that is already wildly self-aware (with references to both Penn's White House career and Cho's Star Trek connection), NPH takes self-reflexivity to a whole new level, mercilessly mocking his (and Clay Aiken's) coming out as just a clever way to get girls. To some, it's scandalous; but it's also incredibly, weirdly inspiring. NPH's star persona is now so inextricably linked to characters that are aggressively heterosexual, as in these films and in the sitcom "How I Met Your Mother."  The fact that in this era he can come out as gay and continue to play these characters - especially considering that as recently as 2010 Newsweek's Ramin Setoodeh suggested that gay actors were incapable of convincingly portraying straight characters (see Aaron Sorkin's excellent response) - is nothing to laugh at. It's something Rock Hudson and Montgomery Clift, closeted stars of another Hollywood era, could have only dreamt of, and another reason Cho can say, "You're welcome, America."

Ultimately, though, A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas just doesn't have the big payoff of the first, that moment when they reach White Castle and somehow eating a series of tiny burgers looks like the best thing you could ever hope to accomplish in your life, with every slow-motion, greasy bite. Even the 3D falls kind of flat, becoming only an afterthought after the handful of gimmicky uses and the awkwardly upfront product placement for the Sharp Aquos 3D television.

We ran into Young MC (of the 1989 hit "Bust a Move") outside the theater, seeing the film for the second time and predicting a strong opening weekend. We're with him: It may not be up to the first film that stole our hearts (what sequels are?) but it's not as bad as the second one either. Fans will get what they want in the happy reunion of this stoner duet and the crazy antics of NPH - and that's one early Christmas present to be thankful for.

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