Raw eggs, confetti and a giant clay phallus are just a few of the stereoscopic missiles hurled in the viewer’s direction by “A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas.” That recurring visual gimmick aptly sums up the hit-or-miss approach typical of this special yuletide edition of the likable stoner-comedy franchise, scaling back its predecessors’ racially and politically charged humor to deliver a string of cartoonish, often violently over-the-top episodes, barely held together by the reliable odd-couple pairing of John Cho and Kal Penn. Brisk pre-holiday biz and strong ancillary potential should spell a fourth, hopefully sharper outing down the line.
After serving up a sly fable of minority empowerment in “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle” (2004) and gleefully lampooning George W. Bush’s America in “Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay” (2008), scribes Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg seem determined to avoid any hint of subversion here, content to serve up a crudely irreverent holiday laffer along the lines of “Bad Santa,” if nowhere near as scathing. For a movie that sees fit to have jolly old St. Nick take a bullet to the face mid-sleigh ride, this vulgar romp is a generally harmless, heartwarming affair, a cinematic Christmas cookie almost sweet and flaky enough to cover the fact that it’s laced with hash, cocaine and assorted bodily fluids, blood included.
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To that end, Hurwitz and Schlossberg have conceived “Christmas” in a spirit of bromantic reconciliation. Several years after the events of “Guantanamo Bay,” uptight overachiever Harold (Cho) is now a Wall Street hotshot living happily in the suburbs with gorgeous wife Maria (Paula Garces). It’s been ages since he’s seen Kumar (Penn), whose weed addiction and slacker attitude have gotten him kicked out of medical school and dumped by longtime g.f. Vanessa (Danneel Harris).
Still holed up in the filthy apartment he once shared with his old friend, Kumar receives a mysterious package addressed to Harold and drops by his house to deliver it on Dec. 24. As luck would have it, Kumar lights a giant doobie while on the premises and accidentally incinerates Harold’s Christmas tree, initiating a crazed quest through the streets of Manhattan to find a new one before Maria and her visiting family — chiefly her intimidating, Korean-hating father (an amusing Danny Trejo) — return from midnight mass.
Along the way, Harold and Kumar renew their friendship and run afoul of various ethnic caricatures including a vicious Ukrainian mobster (Elias Koteas) and two tree-sellers (rapper RZA and Da’Vone McDonald) who delight in scaring customers with their angry-black-man act. While this politically incorrect humor is not without a certain self-awareness, it’s disappointingly tame, overly broad stuff, missing the larger, funnier joke — the xenophobia Harold and Kumar repeatedly encounter despite their thoroughgoing Americanness — that has distinguished the franchise from its lowbrow brethren until now. Elsewhere, the slapdash comedy veers into sheer unpleasantness, especially a toking-toddler running gag that soon winds up in “Baby Geniuses” territory.
Among the more successful gambits are a graphic, grisly homage to “A Christmas Story”; a stop-motion animated sequence visualizing the mother of all acid trips; and, of course, the expected appearance of Neil Patrick Harris, no less funny for being by this point so compulsory. Hamming it up as the star of his own Christmas TV special, Harris again twists his public persona, all but reveling in the opportunity to play himself as a rapacious horndog.
By now, Cho and Penn have got their Asian-American Abbott-and-Costello routine down so cold, they’re a pleasure to spend time with even if the proceedings are less than inspired. The fresh cast additions don’t fare as well; Tom Lennon and Amir Blumenfeld are wearying distractions as Harold and Kumar’s respective new best friends, and Patton Oswalt is wasted in a blink-and-you-miss-it turn as a shopping-mall Santa.
An early scene in which Harold is confronted by anti-Wall Street protestors hints at a promising topical angle but serves merely as the first of many opportunities to play up the stereoscopic element in the goofiest manner possible; so many random objects are hurled at the screen in slo-mo closeup that the results will be significantly draggier in 2D.
Shot on often cruddy-looking HD, the pic is indifferently helmed by Todd Strauss-Schulson, whose video-short credits such as “Big Pussy” and “Sorority Pillow Fight (With Michelle Rodriguez)” no doubt recommended him highly for the gig. Given the general laziness on display, it’s fitting that this is the first series entry whose title doesn’t contain an active verb.