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Jason Wallis ‘Harold & Kumar’ back with impressive third adventure

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Jason Wallis

Posted: Friday, November 11, 2011 7:33 am

I thought — I was led to believe — that November was supposed to be phase one of the annual Oscar blitz, in which studios treat moviegoers to their finest offerings in the hopes of garnering enough attention to qualify for the all-important year-end awards.

It seems that studios are running low on the good stuff, though, because release dates for the major prestige pictures are being pushed back further each year. By the end of the decade, I fully expect that nothing worthwhile will get a wide release until early January.

Think I’m over-reacting? Last week I ran down a brief list of the kind of crap that is inexplicably playing on movie screens across the nation in the middle of November, but it’s nothing compared to the horrorshow we’ve got coming: This weekend brings “The Immortals” (aka “301,” minus Zach Snyder’s eye for the camera), “Jack & Jill” (Adam Sandler’s latest crime against man and God, in which he plays twin siblings — zany!) and “J. Edgar,” whose reviews suggest that critics are finally coming around to the fact that Clint Eastwood makes the most dreary, listless and thoroughly passionless cookie-cutter films this side of Lasse Halstrom. (I’ll see it anyway on account of my man-crush on Leo, but that doesn’t mean I gotta be happy about it.)

Which brings us to next weekend’s releases: “Happy Feet Two” and … wait for it … “Twilight: Breaking Dawn — Part 1.” And even though my familiarity with the “Twilight” saga is limited to the last 20 minutes of the first film, I figure it might be fun (for you, not me) if I took a crack at one of the most notoriously awful franchises in all of film. So you can expect a review of that in a couple weeks, because apparently I truly have nothing better to do.

But for now, I bring glad tidings and good news: Harold and Kumar are back in form, and “A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas,” while not the stroke of comedic genius the first film was, qualifies as a new holiday classic (admittedly, my standards for holiday-themed fare is kinda low). One thing, though: I don’t usually advise readers to opt for the 3D version of movies, but it should be noted that a good portion of the jokes rely on the absurdity of such a film being presented in 3D. Just a heads-up.

I must confess that, despite my massive hatred of the film, I don’t remember much about “Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay,” the extraordinarily forgettable first sequel to the iconic “H&K Go to White Castle.” I do, however, recall being shocked by the film’s coldness, the way it managed to completely strip it heroes of the good-natured humor and sense of genuine fun that made them so popular in the first place. It was an ugly film, and this viewer got the feeling that nobody involved had any particular interest in really building on these characters and their relationship. Elaborate prison rape set pieces, it seems, would suffice.

So it was with healthy skepticism that I approached “A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas,” and damned if it didn’t win me over within the first 10 minutes. This marks a return to the characters’ roots, and once again has the hapless stoners navigating a treacherous, uncanny, “After Hours”-esque urban maze in order to achieve the most seemingly simple of goals. In the first film, it was the acquisition of White Castle hamburgers. Here, it’s a Christmas tree. The point is that the humor is rooted in what is familiar and relatable, and no matter how absurd our heroes’ adventures become — even when things turn supernatural —  they are always propelled by a certain internal logic.

As the film opens, college buddies Harold (John Cho) and Kumar (Kal Penn) have drifted apart. Harold has successfully assimilated into the upper-class suburban scene with a beautiful home, lovely wife and high-paying corporate job. Kal, meanwhile, has dropped out of society and lives the majority of his life on a couch in his filthy apartment, absent-mindedly watching TV for days on end while smoking as much weed as humanly possible.

But on Christmas Eve, Kumar receives an old package mailed to his former roommate and decides to try to reconnect. Their reunion at Harold’s stately home immediately leads to shenanigans as the flame from an oversized joint engulfs the sacred Christmas tree of Harold’s imposing father-in-law, and the duo embark on a quest to replace it. Their journey involves the usual antics, which include attempted female-on-male sexual assault, a shotgun mishap involving the real Santa Claus, and, as is customary, an appearance by a crack-addled and aggressively heterosexual Neil Patrick Harris. Oh, and a toddler who’s exposed to secondhand weed smoke and dangerous amounts of cocaine and ecstasy.

It’s all deliriously goofy fun, thanks in large part to a cast that seems game for absolutely anything. Welcome newcomers include Tom Lennon as Harold’s uptight suburban friend whose baby daughter has quite the night indeed, Danny Trejo as the terrifying father-in-law, and Elias Koteas as a Ukrainian gangster whom Harold and Kumar cross during their misadventures. Their efforts would of course be moot if Cho and Penn weren’t in top form, but thankfully the stars bring an admirable degree of energy to their roles, which are tempered with a fair bit of drama as Harold and Kumar must grapple not only with their own strained relationship but also the mounting demands of “serious” adult life.

Artful it ain’t. Hell, it isn’t even on the level of a “Christmas Vacation” or “Bad Santa.” But you’d have to be a pretty joyless curmudgeon to be left without a smile on your face by the end. And considering the severely limited options for movie-goers these days, I’d say we should just be thankful that it’s a significant step up for what will hopefully be an enduring franchise.

Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at jasonwallis@comcast.net.

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