Finally, someone has found a good use for 3D: to waft giant clouds of digital pot smoke at the audience.
Action directors try not to make it too obvious when they’re thrusting that 3D sword or spear directly in our faces; they don’t want us to confuse the story they’re telling with a cheap carnival attraction. But this third film in the stoner-buddy comedy series, directed by Todd Strauss-Schulson, revels in the gimmick and breaks the fourth wall to mock it at every opportunity. After all of Hollywood’s efforts to take its new, lucrative format super-seriously, that’s kind of a relief.
As for the movie itself, it targets a select audience: the 420 crowd, the pop-culture literate, the fans of twisted holiday fare and the not easily offended. 3D Christmas starts slow, with plenty of gags that fizzle like poorly wired holiday lights. But if you belong in one or more of those categories, it may grow on you.
That has a lot to do with the enduring likability of stars John Cho and Kal Penn (Harold and Kumar, respectively), who were introduced in the sleeper hit Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle (2004). Their first adventure was a quest for burgers and weed with complications; their second, in 2008, had a high concept — the pair were falsely imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay.
The third movie, set several years later, uses the same tired comedy setup we saw last May in The Hangover Part II. Harold has left his grubby roommate bromance with Kumar and settled into a Wall Street job and suburban married life with his longtime crush, Maria (Paula Garcés). The only problem is her dad (Danny Trejo), who disdains his son-in-law and harbors a fetishistic love of Christmas bric-a-brac.
On Christmas Eve, Kumar reappears in Harold’s life and, agent of chaos that he is, destroys the father-in-law’s prize tree. Having become a suck-up of Ed Helms proportions, Harold embarks on a desperate mission to replace it, which takes the pair through the dark heart of holiday-season Manhattan. Will they rediscover their friendship? Will Harold man up? Will bongs be enjoyed, ethnic and religious groups be disrespected, and allusions to A Christmas Story be given obscene twists? Of course.
Many of the film’s lamer jokes and concepts are saved by supporting cast members — such as Thomas Lennon, twitchily silly in an all-too-familiar weenie yuppie dad role; and Trejo, who gives new life to the standard domineering patriarch. Then, playing himself, there’s Neil Patrick Harris, who was portrayed as a rapacious hetero horndog in the previous films. Now that the actor is way out of the closet, the script needs to find a way around that real-life contradiction, and it does so with brio.
The first Harold & Kumar movie made mincemeat of ethnic stereotypes, such as Harold’s coworkers’ assumption that the Korean guy must be a joyless dweeb. This one too often uses them as comic shortcuts, and its female characters remain cardboard, as well. Still, considering what happened between the conception and realization of Tower Heist, it’s nice to see someone can sneak a movie with nonwhite stars into theaters.
3D Christmas offers inspired moments of surreal comedy, like everything involving a contraption called the WaffleBot (he hates pancakes!) and a drug trip in which the heroes become Claymation. It’s not as clever as the Claymation Christmas episode of “Community,” but few things are. The best comedy is on TV these days — but, for creatively inappropriate uses of 3D, you’ll need to hit the multiplex.