(by Dustin Putman
Who could have predicted that a low-budget lark about two stoner friends on a raunch-filled journey to satisfy their munchies with fast-food hamburgers would spawn an out-and-out franchise? Upon release, 2004's "Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle" was only a moderate success, but in the succeeding four years it gained the cult following deserved of such a quirky, R-rated, off-the-wall entertainment. 2008's "Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay" followed, and while the easy-going chemistry between likable leads John Cho (2009's "Star Trek") and Kal Penn (2006's "Superman Returns") was still very much apparent, the humor was more predictable, its focus more cluttered, and its premise not nearly as charmingly quaint. For the series' third outing, returning screenwriters Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg and first-time director Todd Strauss-Schulson aim to do nothing less than desecrate a sacred holiday and put to self-knowingly shameless use the appallingly overused, overpriced 3-D format. "A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas" is wrong in plenty of ways and destined to offend outside its target audience, but is it really all that inspired? Perhaps this viewer has become a victim of desensitization, but what might have come off as shocking a decade or less ago now has a bland, "been-there-done-that" air to it. It's definitely not the gut-buster it thinks it is. Article continues below
A few years have passed since Harold (John Cho) and Kumar (Kal Penn) flew the coop from Guantanamo Bay and had to reclaim their innocence, and in that time the two best friends have drifted apart. While the more straight-laced, career-oriented Harold now lives in wedded bliss with Maria (Paula Garces) and has a new guy friend in the square Todd (Thomas Lennon), Kumar has spiraled into a pot-induced haze since girlfriend Vanessa (Danneel Harris) broke up with him. The magic of the holidays shines upon these two estranged (platonic) soul mates with the mysterious appearance of a package left for Harold at Kumar's door. No sooner have they reunited when a fired-up blunt leads to the complete destruction of Maria's gruff visiting father's (Danny Trejo) Christmas tree—one that took him eight years to grow. Having previously sent Maria and her family off to spend Christmas Eve in the city, Harold has until two in the morning to locate an identical tree, bring it home, and have it decorated before they return. Cue a cavalcade of misadventures as Harold and Kumar come to realize they're a better team together than apart.
More of the same, only staler is the best way to describe "A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas." Sure, with as many episodic sketches as there are back to back, a few are bound to have their moments. An ongoing gag involving toddler Ava's (triplets Ashley Coss, Chloe Coss, Hannah Coss) inadvertent consumption of increasingly hard drugs is ridiculously humorous in the first half—upon snorting cocaine, she knows to use her finger to lace her teeth with the substance—but then trails off with the pointless decision to have Ava, her father Todd (Thomas Lennon), and Kumar's buddy Adrian (Amir Blumenfeld) trapped in a closet for the duration as they hide from infamous mob boss Sergei Katsov (Elias Koteas). The equal-opportunity racial, ethnic and religious profiling on display is nothing new, but playfully cutthroat, with meek tree lot sellers Lamar (RZA) and Latrell (Da'Vone McDonald) taking turns playing the "angry black man" and Harold instantly having the odds stacked against him when he learns Maria's father has held a grudge with the Asian population ever since his beloved mother was killed by a Korean gang during the holidays.
The best scenes arrive with the happy appearance of Neil Patrick Harris (2011's "Beastly"), reprising the tongue-in-cheek role of himself once more as he explains away his apparent death in the previous film, performs a naughty song-and-dance to "We Wish You a Merry Christmas," tweaks at the sight of crack, tries to take advantage of a hot female dancer by feigning gaiety, and, quite succinctly, bids Harold and Kumar adieu by telling them, "I'll see you in the fourth one." Harris is in and out too quickly, but it's just the burst of energy that most of the film simply does not have. Ideas aren't bad on paper—there's a claymation sequence in the style of Saul Bass, an affectionate call-back to 1983's "A Christmas Story" when Harold gets something far more precarious than his tongue frozen to a pole, and a Siri-like waffle-making robot called the Wafflebot—but their satirical bends are slack and predictable, never coming close to matching their potential. A scene where Harold and Kumar are kidnapped by Russian mafioso and tied up in a warehouse like something out of "Saw" or "Hostel" goes on for an interminable length of time and stops the story (what there is of it) dead in its tracks.
"A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas" knows and embraces its coarse vulgarity. It clings joyously to its absurdity. It embraces its weed humor, even if it is confounding why the smoke needed to be almost entirely created with CGI. It has fun, then overstays its welcome, with 3D references (i.e., a traffic cone hits the lens and cracks it, eggs are pelted at the audience) that will be especially lame and cloying once the film is viewed at home in two dimensions. All the while, director Todd Strauss-Schulman proves that he understands the established blueprint of the past movies, if not the rhythm and timing that made the original a step above these last two entries. They're too aware of themselves, so eager to please that they feel desperate on occasion rather than wild and laid-back. Harold and Kumar rekindle their friendship, as they should, and there is a low-key sweetness in the concluding moments that represent something akin to genuine holiday warmth. Alas, it is not enough to override the purveying phoned-in atmosphere of what comes before it.