Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle is arguably the best comedy of the prior decade. It's laugh-out-loud funny, but also filled with intelligent characters engaging in outlandish, but almost-plausible adventures in search of a most simple pleasure (a hamburger). It was crude, but not stupid about its raunch, and it created a wonderful 'this is America' tapestry that helped make it one of the finest films about race/ethnicity relations in modern cinema. Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay is every bit as lousy as most of us expected the first film to be. It's aimless, painfully unfunny, openly stupid, and trading in the sort of stock storytelling conventions ("Oh, that girl I dated for a few months in college is THE ONE who I must win back!") that the original avoided. More importantly, it's outright immoral in how it claims political topicality but sells the three biggest post-9/11 lies around (there are no innocent men in Gitmo, the post 9/11 abuses are the result of a few bad apples, and George W. Bush is really just 'one of us'). For better or worse, A Very Harold and Kumar Christmas isn't as offensive as the first sequel, but it's still a shockingly lazy, uninspired affair. It feels cheap and constrained, with only a handful of laughs and a narrative that sees fit to mostly replicate jokes from the first film. It's not as aggressively bad as the first sequel, but mere mediocrity is not something to aspire to.
It's been several years since the hijinks of the first two films and the title duo has grown apart. Harold (John Cho) is a successful Wall Street banker while Kumar (Kal Penn) is still the same weed-loving slacker he was in the first picture. Harold's primary concern at the moment is the arrival of his in-laws, with his terrifying father-in-law (Danny Trejo!) putting him in charge of decorating a sacred family Christmas tree. When a package addressed to Harold shows up on Kumar's door, Kumar decides to personally deliver the package. But the reunion takes a turn for the tragic when said tree inexplicably burns down. Now, with only one long night to prevent the wrath of Maria's (Paula Garces) family, the old friends must race around the city in order to find a replacement tree. Needless to say, allegedly outlandish antics and ample R-rated humor ensue.
The film starts strong, taking time to establish what's happened to whom in the intervening years while openly mocking the film's 3D effects. I could argue that the shockingly-timely Wall Street protest opening plays into the whole 'protesters are irrational hippies' stereotype, but the visual pay off is worth it and the moment contains a priceless blink-and-you-miss it gag (hint -- read the protest signs). But once the inciting actions occur, the film becomes an aimless and weirdly random experience. Unlike the original, the film finds the very idea of smoking pot to be inherently funny, which sets us up for several laugh-free minutes throughout the 81-minute (plus credits) picture. Cho and Penn are game, but Penn is especially saddled with an arc where he is forced to learn the exact same 'with innate intelligence comes innate responsibility' lesson he learned in the first film. His love interest from Part II (Danneel Harris) does make a return appearance, but the events of the film leave us no more optimistic for their future than we felt at the conclusion of the prior adventure.
Amir Blumefield and Thomas Lennon are on-hand as Kumar and Harold's respective new BFFs, but neither of them elicit any laughs. Blumefield is the horny and clueless nerd (groundbreaking!) while Lennon is a bumbling dad stuck with his kid for the night (earthshaking!). Blumefield's pursuit of 'booty' does lead to the film's big set-piece, which involves a party thrown by a bunch of very wealthy middle-school kids and has at least one biting Karate Kid joke. But the central conceit of the scene, that Blumefield has been lured online for online tryst by an impossibly gorgeous young woman (Jordan Hinson), is neutered when the film is too cowardly to explicitly state why this would-be hook-up would be illicit. It does provide an entrance to Elias Koteas, who wins real laughs as the film's primary antagonist. But even that is distracting, as the nature of the role makes it pretty clear that Christopher Meloni was not available (it's no secret they share a passing resemblance). I adore both men, but Meloni was as much a part of the franchise as Neil Patrick Harris (yes, he does return), and merely casting 'that character actor who looks like him' due to a scheduling conflict feels like a sign of disrespect to both actors. To be fair, Koteas does as much as he can with Meloni's sloppy seconds, as well as a role that stops allowing him to be funny after the second act.
Yes, as noted above, Neil Patrick Harris does return, but for all the good it does the film he should have stayed dead. His is a standalone scene that doesn't advance the narrative in any particular way and in fact slows the momentum to a crawl. What could have been a nice in-joke wink (the fact that Patrick Harris has come out of the closet since the second film was released) becomes a protracted and unfunny set-piece that eats up valuable screen time during the start of the third act. His wasted appearance is indicative of what is wrong with the film. It sees little qualms with merely copying what worked in the first film (and what little did work in the second film), tweaking it just a touch to make it seem slightly less warmed over. The same characters embark on a similar adventure, encounter similar situations, and engage in many of the same jokes that were funny seven years ago. But the jokes were fresher seven years ago, because they were in service of a story that worked, characters who we cared about and could relate to, plus a screenplay that contained genuine insights about how America has become a multicultural, mixed-race melting pot. This new film doesn't even attempt any social relevance or deeper meaning.
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