A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas starts to make sense when you find out that the film was made to fulfill a contractual obligation. Even for the third entry in a series whose films revolve around cartoonish set-ups and gross-out moments, this one feels rushed and incomplete, exhausting its little remaining energy around the 70-minute mark and limping gamely to about 85 minutes before the credits start to roll. What makes the film such a frustrating experience is how close it comes to being, if not good, then a damn sight better than what it is. This is usually the most distressing failure a film can have because it’s proof that the men and women who made it are not stupid, and in fact are smart and probably interesting, and could very likely do something special with their time and talents. The film isn’t the abject failure you see in, e.g., spoof movies, where the abject lack of intellect or humor is seen as a badge of honor. There are moments here of truly inspired silliness that feel like glimpses into the subconscious of a much smarter, much funnier movie, and their fleeting appearances only make the rest of the film that much less tolerable. I’ve written a lot as a critic about this specific type of disappointment, of watching a movie so badly fail to capitalize on its own best intentions, and I find myself returning to it so often because it’s illustrative of the worst kind of moviegoing experience. A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas was never going to change the world, but it did have the opportunity to make people happy for a while. Instead, it squanders its paltry jokes and then settles for cheap non-laughs and standard attempts at shock.
I use “cartoonish” advisedly, too. The Harold & Kumar series exists in the world of surreal comedies, where things can happen that defy the laws of physics and reality. They’re intentionally insane, and that gives them the potential to go to strange and gleeful places. But those little bits of real personality are buried in an onslaught of predictable jokes with dead punch lines. For instance, one running gag involves a small robot that makes and dispenses waffles. The Wafflebot speaks with an electronic warble like a gravel-throated Mr. Butlertron, but he uses that voice to profess his love for his user or to espouse his deep hatred for pancakes. (“They serve pancakes in helllll” is a particularly good one.) It’s not groundbreaking, and just writing about an angry waffle-loving robot makes me realize how thin the premise is and how desperately I needed something in the movie to be funny, if only for an instant. But it’s still a good example of the kind of weird grace note that’s drowned out by the cacophony that defines the rest of the film.
The Harold & Kumar movies know their formula: Set up a faraway goal and watch two amiable stoners — John Cho’s neurotic Harold and Kal Penn’s swaggering Kumar — try to reach it. But while the first film was about satisfying a craving for munchies and the second was about getting the girl, this one’s more about growing into that nebulous part of adulthood that kicks in in your late 20s. There’s a tangible goal, too: Harold needs to get a Christmas tree to impress his imposing father-in-law (Danny Trejo) after Kumar wrecks the original on Christmas Eve. Harold and Kumar haven’t spoken in years when the story begins, but after Kumar receives a package in Harold’s name at the apartment they used to share, he visits his old friend’s suburban home and promptly lays accidental waste to the 12-foot fir when a stray joint gets thrown the wrong way. Harold and Kumar have grown apart since their post-collegiate escapades — they just kind of drifted away from each other, though their initial mutual animosity goes unexplained — but they reluctantly band together to scour the city for a replacement tree to make things right.
They’re joined for a while by their respective new best friends: Kumar’s obnoxious sidekick, Adrian (CollegeHumor.com’s Amir Blumenfeld), and Harold’s nerdy coworker, Todd (Thomas Lennon). Todd has his toddler daughter with him, which, this being a drug comedy, does not work out well for anyone. At one point, somebody gets the baby high on secondhand pot smoke, which prompts the little girl to say, “I’ve got the munchies.” This is that kind of movie. In pursuit of a tree, the gang heads to a house party where Adrian plans to deflower a high school girl who’s offered herself to him (any discussion of her age is nonexistent, so I’m going to skate right past the pretty questionable implications here), but the party goes bust when the girl’s dad turns out to be a mob boss (Elias Koteas) who scares the guys off. Todd and Adrian hide out in the gangster’s closet because, well, screenwriters Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg can’t think of anything better to do with them and don’t want them stepping on the scenes that feature the two leads people presumably came out to see. Todd and Adrian are living props, and treated as such.
Harold and Kumar bounce from one misadventure to the next trying to find a suitable tree, and along the way they once again run into “Neil Patrick Harris,” played by Neil Patrick Harris. Harris appeared in the first film as a horny caricature of a washed-up former celebrity, but that was a year before “How I Met Your Mother” turned him loose and made him a national pop treasure and semi-permanent awards show host. His version of himself here is just a tweaked take on his sitcom character, but he’s so perfectly self-assured and mischievous that he injects a much-needed energy into the film for his few brief scenes. He occupies those moments of brave hilarity that the rest of the film sorely lacks.
The film somehow manages to feel as if it’s trying too hard and not trying at all. The comedic and story beats are so rote they barely need mentioning, but there’s also the matter of the ugly, blurry, consistently dim 3-D effects that feel designed to ride the zeitgeist but instead reduce an already dull comedy to an often unwatchable one. There are a few meta gags about the 3-D — one of Harold’s coworkers acquires a 3-D TV as a gift for Harold’s father-in-law just so the two men can awkwardly look at the camera and joke about how “amazing” 3-D can be — but it’s mostly wasted. Pot smoke wafts out of the screen, and semen is flung at the audience in a similar manner; as usual, 3-D is a gimmick that fails to prove its usefulness. (Unless seeing a 4-foot Claymation penis hoisted over your head in 3-D is reason to buy a ticket, in which case saddle up.)
The story peters out soon enough, and everyone learns the kind of bland and nonspecific lessons they always do in comedies like this. And as Harold and Kumar sit there with each other, it hits you: None of this matters. Not because it ended predictably, or soon, or with no small amount of embarrassment. Rather, because the joy in life is in the journey, and character trumps all else. These two guys have been through what feels like everything together, but it’s always a chore to watch it, and when they reach the goal line, they’re the same people they always were: somewhat pleasant, mostly forgettable. They go to White Castle, or Guantanamo Bay, or Texas, or New Jersey, but they never really get anywhere. It’s probably for the best that there’s no deal in place to make another one of these films. Let the characters stop here. It’s been — well, it’s been an experience. That’s about all you can say.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. He’s also a TV blogger for the Houston Press. He tweets more often than he should, and he blogs at Slowly Going Bald.