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A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas (2011)

Tokin' Holiday Movie

You don't have to be a pothead or a sociopath to think that, as holiday films go, A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas is a modern classic. Sure, it's bursting with vulgar juvenilia and 100% more 3D claymation dongs than have ever appeared in a major motion picture. But I'm hard-pressed to think of a recent holiday movie that so perfectly captures the true spirit of the season, as well as the attendant glee and darkness of Christmas pageantry.

Harold & Kumar follows in the great tradition of sequels popping up several years after their series' previous installments. The gap is considerably narrower than with movies like Rocky Balboa and Clerks 2, but just enough time has passed since 2008's entertaining but ultimately disappointing Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay that catching up with our stoner heroes feels like a treat instead of a chore. After the events of that movie, Harold (John Cho) married his girl-next-door crush, Maria (Paula Garces) and moved to the suburbs to begin a family--leaving his professional-screw-up pal, Kumar (Kal Penn), to flounder in a haze of weed and heartbreak. The former best friends haven't spoken in two years; despite their efforts to replace each other, nothing can match the bond that was solidified over White Castle hamburgers and history's weirdest road trip.

I'm going to tiptoe around spoilers in describing the plot--not that there are a lot of twists and turns in the story, but the fun of absurdist comedies like this is in discovering all the gags and strangeness for yourself. After a depressing day at his cushy, unsatisfying Wall Street job, Harold flees a mob of protesters and comes home to prepare for a long weekend with Maria's large family. He's eager to impress her father, Mr. Perez (Danny Trejo), a grouchy, racist, bruiser who thinks his son-in-law is a wimp. Harold's fake Christmas tree isn't good enough for the old man, who has hauled a twelve-foot fir from his own home to display in the young couple's living room.

Meanwhile, Kumar receives a package for Harold at their old apartment and dutifully treks out to the 'burbs with his obnoxious buddy, Adrian (Amir Blumenfeld) to deliver it. Inside the brown paper wrapping is an ornate wooden box containing a massive joint. You can guess what happens when Kumar lights it in the middle of Harold's living room. Thus begins our full-on buddy comedy, in which the guys' quest to secure and return a new Christmas tree before the Perezes return from midnight mass turns into a wild night of drugs, encounters with the Russian mob, and a psychotic, co-dependent children's toy called Wafflebot.*

This nutty Christmas Eve also sees the return of Neil Patrick Harris, playing the coked-up, sexually ravenous version of himself that helped re-launch the actor's career in Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle. In the last film, Harris was shot to death, making his headlining appearance in a grand stage show very puzzling to our heroes. Through a series of otherworldly events that don't make a whole lot of sense, Harris was ushered into heaven and then sent back to Earth to sing and dance and sexually assault women.

Yeah, about that...

It's a testament to the ridiculous skills of co-writers Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg that the scene in which Harris uses his real-life homosexuality to lure a back-up dancer (Melissa Ordway) into his dressing room doesn't de-rail all of the good will the actor has built up for himself. They walk right up to the line between naughty, comedic behavior and, frankly, the ugliness of rape--pulling back at the last microsecond and recovering with a great joke and a modicum of comeuppance for the pathetic horndog.

Hurwitz, Schlossberg, and director Todd Strauss-Schulson have created a beautiful, twisted universe in which both Jesus and Santa Claus exist, and every racial stereotype one can think of is absolutely true. In the realm of Harold & Kumar, 3D technology is something to be ridiculed by the characters and yet reveled in by the filmmakers (they make this expensive, superfluous gimmick fun by making fun of it). The movie is stuffed with blatant product placement, but they're the kinds of commercials I would actually love to see on television; few sponsors would have the balls to advertise their spiffy new flatscreens or hamburger joints in a film where a four-year-old girl inhales pot and cocaine and mistakes a bag of Ecstasy for candy. It's as much of a "fuck you" to the advertisers as it is to the audience, and I'm sure both sides are laughing for very different reasons.

Speaking of which,  I haven't laughed this hard for this long at any other movie this year. Nine out of every ten jokes lands, and the movie pushes further and further into absurdity to ensure that it's at least half a step ahead of the audience at every turn. Even some of the more predictable gags are underscored by the gentlest of tweaks that turn them into unexpected new reasons to guffaw. Best of all, the movie's stuffed trailers don't ruin any of the fun--often, they contain one or two jokes out of a ten-joke scene. I went into this film expecting to chuckle a bit (I wasn't sure how effective a stoner franchise could be once the main characters got out of their twenties), but wound up practically losing my mind (or fully losing my mind--you decide, after reading about this film again in next month's Year's Best list).

The last decade has seen a handful of really smart, really adult Christmas-themed movies that one wouldn't necessarily associate with staying power. Yet the raunch and giant, beating heart of films like Love Actually and Bad Santa say more about people's complex relationship with the holidays than all the schmaltzy, animated films and wintry rom-coms combined. They capture the tinsel-strewn duality many people face this time of year, when media and religion bombard us with messages of artificial joy and hope--which run contrary to our typical 364-day struggles with work, relationships, and a future that looks increasingly uncertain. They wear a glossy, pine-scented skin that masks a deep, philosophical question at the heart of mankind: "Is there a God, and, if so, does he really give a shit about ornaments and sugar cookies?"

The message of A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas, visible by pushing through its fine ganja fog, is that it doesn't matter what faith one follows--or if one has no faith at all. The things that really matter in life are friendship, family, and the courage to make oneself happy--which, in turn, can make other people happy, too. The top hats and candy canes are nice (especially in 3D), but they're just wrapping paper; it's up to us to make whatever's inside a gift worth giving.

*It's all I want for Christmas.

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