I confess to counting the Harold and Kumar franchise among my top guilty pleasures. I even hesitate to use the term because I find its first entry, Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle (2004), as insightful as it is hilarious. On the other hand, the film belongs to a genre I generally don’t like, and the fact that the only stoner comedy I appreciate stars two Asian men makes me feel like one of those racist minorities Fox News keeps rambling about. Mind you, that’s the point of the series: to mock (and thereby expose) the more subtle effects of institutional discrimination.
Three movies in, you might imagine the concept getting long in the tooth, especially after the previous instalment stretched it a few miles past its breaking point. A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas addresses the issue by letting the stereotyped parties in on the joke. I love the scene in which two Jewish friends argue after one converts to Christianity and has “the magic water wash all the Jew off of him”. The bit proves as tasteless as it sounds and twice as funny, highlighting the inherent inanity of singling out either denomination. It’s worth noting, though, that the filmmakers have toned down the racial humour considerably. Perhaps they want to move on.
Harold (John Cho) certainly has. Three years after escaping from Guantanamo Bay, he’s quit pot, left his roommate, and married the beautiful Maria (Paula Garcés) from the first two movies. Kumar (Kal Penn), on the other hand, has let dope get in the way of his medical career and his relationship with Vanessa (Danneel Ackles), whose pregnancy prompts him to finally take responsibility for his actions. The pan-Asian duo reunites when Kumar delivers a wrongly addressed package to Harold and ends up burning his Christmas tree. I like that our heroes spend the rest of the film chasing after pine instead of weed.
In a sense, the premise has been inverted, with Harold and Kumar trying to run away from drugs and failing in increasingly convoluted ways. None turns out a greater or more hilarious victim of this than Harold’s new friend Todd (Thomas Lennon), whose infant daughter (Ashley, Chloe, and Hannah Cross) absorbs every illicit substance known to man. In real life, this would make for a terrifying proposition, of course, but director Todd Strauss-Schulson finds the perfect tone for this running gag, informing us early on of its cartoon logic.
For all its shock value and gross-out humour, A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas proves both too absurd to offend and too creative to bore. When Neil Patrick Harris makes his obligatory cameo, it’s hard not to applaud the unlikely way screenwriters Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg use the actor’s real-life coming-out to enhance his fictional womanising. By the same token, I find it refreshing to watch a 3D flick that dares to “look Avatarded” and throw everything at the viewers, from a claymation penis (okay, that was lame) to a priest’s tooth frozen in bullet time.
Grounding the experience are the understated performances by Cho and Penn, whose characters have grown up at last. Harold remains high-strung, but he’s no longer a victim. He can stand up for himself and provides a legitimate, not to mention romantic, reason for tolerating his father-in-law (Danny Trejo), who doesn’t care for Koreans. Similarly, Kumar appears bored with his own stoner existence. His actions are indicative of a man eager to make amends and turn a new leaf. Together, they come across as genuine friends rather than a comedic duo.
Most raunchy comedies want us to laugh at the protagonists. This one has us laughing with them. It never treats Harold and Kumar as ethnic punch lines but as fully realised characters who happen to get called “chink” and “dot-head” every once in a while. Many of us can relate to that. If Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle exposed the paradigms that shape our lives and Escape from Guantanamo Bay (2008) dealt with those that cross the line, then A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas is all about the small transgressions with which we’ve come to put up because, hey, we’re people too, and we’ve got a wicked sense of humour.