In 2004, I had an amazing, unique experience at the movie theater, as I watched a stoner comedy about two best friends who embark on a pot-fueled quest to find their favorite hamburgers. While stoner movies are hardly new, what was so remarkable about this one was that the two friends were a Korean American and an Indian American, something I had never seen in a mainstream comedy aimed at a wide audience.
That film, of course, was Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, a movie I, as an Asian American, found to be subversive and welcome on many levels. Not only did it debunk stereotypes by making its two Asian stars pot smokers (albeit high-functioning ones), but it used comedy to address race and racism for a young, post-racial American audience without making Harold & Kumar's race their most defining characteristic. When confronted with racism, the duo doesn't respond with anguish or shame, but with eye rolls and an attitude that said, "Really? Aren't we past this?" -- a sentiment I know well. The butt of the jokes wasn't Harold & Kumar's race -- it was the people who couldn't get past it.
While hardly high cinema (pardon the pun), Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle was a movie I'd waited for my whole life, and since it was set up as a franchise, I looked forward to more Harold & Kumar films in the future. But despite having one of my favorite movie titles ever, 2008's Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay was a disappointment. So it was with some apprehension that I watched the latest installment, A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas, fearing that I might be seeing the last chapter of America's first and only Asian-American franchise, especially since the film bears that dreaded tag, "In 3D". Watch the trailer for A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas below.
In the film, we find the more straight-laced Harold, played by John Cho, working on Wall Street and living a pot-free life in the suburbs with his wife and love interest from the first two films, Maria (played by Paula Garcés), whose huge Mexican-American family has descended on their home for Christmas. Harold has become estranged from his best pal Kumar, played by Kal Penn, who has dropped out of medical school and sunken into slovenly despair after being left by his girlfriend, whom he learns is pregnant with his baby.
Through a mysterious package, Harold & Kumar are reunited. But after Kumar accidentally burns down the Christmas tree that's the pride and joy of Harold's imposing, Christmas-loving father-in-law (Danny Trejo), the duo sets out on a quest across New York City to find a replacement, running into increasingly ridiculous mishaps along the way, including their third run-in with Neil Patrick Harris playing a depraved heterosexual version of himself in what should be considered the gold standard of cameos.
Despite the pointless, distracting, self-aware 3D effects that are a hallmark of the medium, A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas is a return to form, with the plot's clear and single-minded focus echoing the first film's mission for munchies. There's plenty of raunchy humor, including lots of naked breasts, tortured genitalia, a baby dosed with multiple narcotics, and weird flights of fancy, including a Claymation segment and a meeting with the real Santa Claus.
But the biggest laughs in A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas, other than the Neil Patrick Harris sequence, are its jokes about the inadvertent, often well-meaning stereotyping between Harold and his Mexican American in-laws -- something I, as a minority, am very familiar with. That's where we see what makes the Harold & Kumar franchise so special -- that it consistently paints racism as something to be laughed at, even if the main characters sometimes succumb to it themselves. These are films for the post-racial generation, and it's heartening that they've found their audience. However, the fact that the Harold & Kumar films are the only place where a handsome, talented, versatile Asian-American actor like John Cho can get a starring role in a mainstream movie shows that we still have a long way to go.