Thursday, November 10, 2011

A Very Stoner Christmas

We can look back at the entire year of 2011 and never see anything like this. Only one film released this year features burning Christmas trees, multiple ethnic stereotypes, claymation dongs, drug addicted babies, a White House associate director, a pot-smoking Santa Clause, and a fictional representation of Neil Patrick Harris, played by Neil Patrick Harris. No, I'm not talking about Melancholia; this film is unlikely to garner any Oscar nominations, and is definitely for the more lowbrow set. The latest in the the series heralded as a modern day Cheech and Chong, A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas has just about everything your stoner mind needs. That being said, the lovable duo (borne from a small scene in American Pie and a breakthrough role in National Lampoon's Van Wilder) can be enjoyed entirely Cannabis-free if you so choose. I still have fond memories of seeing the original Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle with my friends back in 2004; the raucous combination of raunchy humor with surprisingly wry wit was truly inspired, and while it surely wasn't one of the blockbusters of the year, it cemented its place with an audience who craved something a little off the beaten track.

This won't end well
Taking place six years after the events of Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle and it's sequel Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay, we learn that former stoner buddies Harold Lee (John Cho) and Kumar Patel (Kal Penn) have grown apart from one another in the years since. Harold has given up marijuana in his attempts to father a child with his wife Maria (Paula Garces), and tries to gain the favor of Maria's strict father (Danny Trejo) with a perfectly-executed Christmas. Kumar is still enjoying his leisurely style of life, though it has gotten him suspended from work and separated from his sweetheart Vanessa (Daneel Harris). When a package arrives at the duo's old apartment for Harold, it unexpectedly sets the two on a journey where the old friends reunite and rediscover why they had been so close in the first place. On that journey, they are run into underage beer pong champions, Russian gangsters, an evil snowman, Neil Patrick Harris and Santa Claus himself as they learn the true meaning of Christmas. Oh, yeah, and it's in 3D.

We don't condone punching a priest... most of the time
That last sentence would usually mean an upcoming diatribe about the mediocrity in which most films use 3D in the first place. Maybe it would be particularly volatile and obscenity-laced. But I'm not going to do that today? Why? Well, for one thing I'm tired of making the argument when most people seem to agree with me in that regard already. Secondly, the 3D in this Harold and Kumar outing is actually fairly well done. This is mainly due to two things. One: the film was made using actual 3D cameras without additional post-production material except in a few specific sequences. The second reason is that the movie parodies itself by questioning whether the technology has "jumped the shark", an obvious shot at just about every major studio that treats 3D almost as if it was the second coming of "talkies". Overall there is no real surprise in the 3D use in this film; most of the more obvious examples are featured in the trailers and therefore the use has no lasting impression on the overall body of work.

What were they doing with that squirrel in the tree? The world may never know
Whatever else you may think of the people involved in this series, there is no doubting the chemistry between the film's stars, Penn and Cho. As Kumar, Kal Penn is allowed to let loose and simply enjoy himself in a way that his more critically-hailed works have not. It's obvious that this young man has talent; his appearance on the TV show House MD and his lead role in The Namesake are proof enough of that. However he really seems to shine when he is allowed to cut loose, free of the confining restraints of Hollywood politics. John Cho has also enjoyed some commercial success, but like Penn has gained most of his attention from this series. As Harold, Cho is far more cautious, perfectly pairing with Kumar's take-no-prisoners attitude. This is why the two have gained such notoriety in recent years; their ability to convey just how their friendship has worked is the main reason these titles haven't been completely ignored. The support cast is talented but of course does not get nearly as much attention as the film's leads. Paula Garces proves underutilized as she can change on a dime between sex-craving vixen and sweet daddy's girl, showing a talent we knew she had in recent years. It's sad then that in this third outing she's barely given as much to do as she had in the first two films. Harris carries a strong performance but goes almost unmentioned between her scenes at the beginning and end of the film. Though both are supposed to be important parts of Harold and Kumar's lives, neither gets as much to do as they deserve. It's good to see Danny Trejo succeed in a comedic role, the actor usually known for his action work gets probably the most chances to shine among the secondary cast and never misses a beat. Newcomer Thomas Lennon also puts in a solid performance; as a change-up, Lennon forgoes much of his usual silliness to play an everyman, and while not perfect he still does a lot right with his work. The only disappointment in the cast is the failure of Law & Order: SVU performer Christopher Meloni to return to the series a third time. The character obviously intended for him, Russian mob boss Sergei Katsov, is reliably played by Elias Koteas. Koteas, while no Meloni, is a strong actor who doesn't mince with comedy and menaces throughout the entirety of his performance

The next step to global domination
Of course, it would be folly to ignore the effect that Neil Patrick Harris has had on the Harold and Kumar films, or the influence that the series has had on his own acting career. Playing the fictional, drug addicted womanizing version of himself in Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle rejuvenated his stagnant acting career, there can be no doubt. Without White Castle, there would be no Barney Stinson. Without Barney Stinson there would be no How I Met Your Mother. And of course without Neil Patrick Harris there would likely be no Harold and Kumar sequels, as his character is probably the only one to be arguably more popular than either of the lead roles. Since his appearance in Christmas takes place chronologically after Harris came out of the closet, his sadly brief showing covers for that pop culture event while also making room for a cameo by his real life beau David Burtka. The only complaint I have is that there is far too little of Harris' craziness, packed into too short a period of time. He briefly appears, is great, and then disappears into the woodwork, never to be heard from again.

On a very special CSI: North Pole

And in the end, this is what is flawed about A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas. While it is funny at times, I can't help but feel that director Todd Strauss-Schulson, in his first feature film, didn't understand what made this dynamic pair so great in the first place. The script tries far too hard to shock you into groans rather than to actually try and make you laugh. While I really did have myself a good time seeing this picture, this lack of execution is what puts the third entry to this series a tick behind its predecessors. Between bong-wielding Santas and crack-addicted babies, there is more than enough to either enjoy or wag a finger at, and I hope the next entry to this series can get back to the level of quality we've enjoyed from Harold and Kumar in the past.

No comments: