Great balls of tinsel, this third installment in the Harold & Kumar franchise starts off with a bang. The primary objective seems to be justifying its 3D incarnation, which it gets down to immediately, mostly by floating billows of marijuana cumulus and cirrus into the audience, as well as candy canes, Christmas ornaments, feces and other effluvia.
This being Harold & Kumar, the racial and religious slurs and gross-out humor come just as thick and fast. It’s enough to offend nearly every affinity group on the planet, and disgust anyone who’s left. If you thought that scene in A Christmas Story with the tongue stuck on the pole was horrible, this movie has got a frozen treat for you.
Seven years have elapsed since Harold and Kumar’s misadventures in Guantanamo Bay, during which the two once-BFFs have gone their separate ways. Harold has returned to his former rule-following, high-achieving ways, while Kumar has been expelled from his medical studies for failing a drug test and descended into a slovenly life of perpetual stonerdom.
The arrival of a mysterious package reunites them once more, and in no time at all the brand new bay window of Harold’s beautiful suburban house has been shattered and the 12-foot Douglas fir Christmas tree just delivered by his forbidding and unaccepting Colombian father, Mr. Perez (the always genius Danny Trejo), has burst into flames. I especially adored his bathetic, sepia-toned memories of his hard-working mother being cut down by vicious Korean gangs. You know, just like those Korean gangs menace the streets in real life.
And off we go. Harold and Kumar must spend the rest of Christmas eve trying to replace that perfect 12-foot Douglas fir, which leads, naturally, to their crashing a party at the Manhattan penthouse of the notorious Ukranian crime boss Sergei Katsov (a wonderful Elias Koteas) and an encounter with the great red-suited Christmas jolly himself. It’s as shaggy a plot as you’d want in a stoner flick.
Since it’s Christmas, there’s a little Rudolph the Red Nose-style stop-action claymation bit that looks a lot like the lamentably short-lived Eddie Murphy series The PJs, in which the drugged Harold and Kumar experience a joint surreal hallucination that descends from Frosty the Snowman to slasher movie.
There’s also a stop at a Christmas pageant à la the Rockettes, starring, of course, Mr. Neil Patrick Harris as himself. The joke is that NPH can snap from Broadway-shiny to sordid, sinister and sadomasochistic in a kick of a chorus girl’s leg, and every time he’s on screen, he makes this 3D movie pop into a fourth dimension. The Christmas pageant number works brilliantly as an escapist set piece, and succeeds in giving the kind of mindless pleasure the rest of the movie is striving for.
As Lieutenant Jim Dangle, Thomas Lennon is one of my favorite parts of many inReno 911 (of which he’s also executive producer), but he’s lost here in the role of Todd, fussy Suburban dad and would-be best friend of Harold. Most of his scenes revolve around a strained and extremely unfunny subplot in which his baby daughter Ava inadvertently inhales and ingests numerous illegal substances over the course of the evening. I’m a curmudgeon when it comes to babies in movies anyway, and each cutaway to Ava snorting coke and gobbling ecstacy tablets harshed my mellow every time.
But most of all, there are Harold Lee and Kumar Patel, the first Asian American male leads in major Hollywood movies, a casting as revolutionary in our time as Cheech and Chong were in theirs. It’s interesting to note that the franchise’s executive creative team are all white guys. They wrote the script of the original movie with actor John Cho in mind for Harold, and built the script details around Asian protagonists so the studios wouldn’t be able, as they’ve said in interviews, to whiten the leads to “Dave and Josh.” Not that theirs was any kind of altruistic mission. Rather, they wanted to have a twist to (as well as permission for) their equal opportunity slurs.
But as the very smart John Cho (Kal Penn is no slouch himself, very famously rotating between Hollywood and the White House, where he serves as Associate Director of the Office of Public Engagement) posits in a 2009 interview with the UCLA Asia Institute, a lot of the emerging visibility of Asian American actors, and especially of Asian American males, who have until very recently been nearly completely invisible, is less a matter of politics than of generational change. Speaking of the 1990s show 90210, the UC Berkeley grad said: “You see these college campuses [on TV] and there are no Asians, and you’re thinking, ‘where are these people going to school?’
It just seemed like this very artificially white world, and I remember thinking it just seems like the writers are probably in their 40s, and this is their memory and this is their idealized experience. I just couldn’t imagine that the situation would be the same if our generation started writing, and … this has proven to be real to some extent. Jon [Hurwitz] and Hayden [Schlossberg] [the writers/creators of Harold & Kumar] — they were friends with [the real] Harold Lee and wrote a movie because they were friends with him…. And J.J. Abrams [creator of Lost and director of the Star Trek reboots, in which Cho plays Sulu] is young and … has a very diverse set of friends. And that more diverse experience is starting to make an impact in entertainment.”
Can you tell I love Cho? He’s got a lot of smart things to say about the Asian American experience and AA representation in the larger culture. More here and here. Penn himself has lots of interesting things to say on the topic as well, including his guest role as a terrorist on 24.
So it makes me doubly sad to say that none of us are as young as we used to be, and the Harold & Kumar franchise is starting to sag, ever so slightly. Not too much. After all, we’re Asians, and we age well. But the first installment, Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, was pure blissed-out silliness, kept aloft by the youthful glow of its unknown, good-humored stars. Now the characters are in their 30s; both, by the end of this latest movie, about to embark on fatherhood. (Cho is already a father in real life).
Mayhem and irresponsibility look less appealing, and this movies shows some strain. Don’t get me wrong. There’s still tons of tasteless sanity and inspired stupidity, and just beneath that, lots of smarts and subversiveness. And I laughed—a lot, but I also worried. This is, despite the stoned giggles, a slightly less buoyant movie. It almost felt at times like a movie that wanted to go elsewhere—maybe to Judd Apatow territory, which feels at least more anchored in real life than this—but was held back by its premise.
Both Cho and Penn are obviously, in real life, far, far more intelligent and deeper than these characters. Can Harold & Kumar be more than ethnic punch lines? Can these characters grow up? And what about the actors? Can America see these Asian American actors as real men, in mainstream dramatic roles that aren’t about immigrant identity (Penn in The Namesake) or set in futuristic space (Cho in Star Trek)? As Penn’s boss in the White House might say: Damn straight, we can.