Come All Ye Potheads 

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A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas
Directed by Todd Strauss-Schulson

Really, it all started with Dude, Where's My Car? That low-rent, occasionally inventive stoner-lite adventure had a dumb-comedy premise so killer that the movie's director, Danny Leiner, basically remade it in 2004 with Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, with better actors and a sharper script poking at ideas of cultural identity as it followed characters who would be (and in the actors' case, actually were) the ethnic sidekicks in so many other raunchy comedies. The Hangover and its sequel co-opted the what-just-happened structure for the fratty audience that the first Harold & Kumar movie ribbed, and made millions.

But Harold (John Cho) and Kumar (Kal Penn) survive; with A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas, they make the leap to trilogy, a feat rarely accomplished in comedy series, which usually stall out with an underwhelming second installment. While 2008's Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay qualified, squandering its promise on broadsides and episodes that felt cartoonish even by surrealist stoner-comedy standards, Christmas pulls back from that overemphatic wildness. Real time has passed since the pair's last adventure, giving this very silly, quite vulgar buddy movie a twinge of genuine feeling. Harold and Kumar are still slightly mismatched in temperament but, more importantly, growing apart as people: Kumar has been on a months-long weed bender (complete with overgrown beard) after a recent break-up, while Harold hasn't seen his friend in two years as he busies himself with his marriage to Maria (Paula Garces) and their nice house in the Jersey suburbs. They're both making do with inferior white-dude substitutes: Kumar has hipster-y young Adrian (Amir Blumenfeld) while Harold skews older with lame suburban dad Todd (Tom Lennon).

Kumar re-enters Harold's life when he drops off a package left at their old apartment and accidentally burns down the beloved Christmas tree provided by Maria's fearsome, militantly pro-Christmas father (Danny Trejo, pricelessly decked out in holiday sweaters). Rather than pursuing a late-night snack, the boys venture into (a Michigan-shot version of) New York City to find a replacement tree on Christmas Eve—though there is an obligatory White Castle break. Loosely connected goofball detours ensue.

Christmas retains the first movie's interest in subcultures and malleable ethnic identity with more dedication than the broad Bush-spoofing of the second movie. The targets are smaller, but smarter: in one of the best scenes, Harold and Kumar turn up at a party for privileged young Manhattan douchebags, the sex-and-drugs-comedy heroes now flummoxed by a youth culture they don't understand; it's the stoner comedy equivalent of that party scene in Greenberg. Other side-character sketches are more affectionate, like the Christmas tree merchants who bicker over who gets to act like the scary aggressive black dude when interacting with customers, or Harold and Kumar's Jewish counterparts Goldstein (David Krumholtz) and Rosenberg (Eddie Kaye Thomas), arguing over Christianity; the movie also goes for broke when folding in the coming-out of series mascot Neil Patrick Harris, explained as an elaborate ruse for bedding showgirls. Even the cartoonishly violent and melodramatic explanation of Trejo's Christmas obsession is filtered through the immigrant experience.

As ever, some of the adventures are dead ends; here, the worst stuff revolves around creepy baby-endangerment gags that seem dead set on outdoing The Hangover, perhaps as a form of weird, borderline avant-garde revenge. The movie also makes a last-act turn into lazy Christmas special magic—not via the clay-animated segment, easily (or at least amusingly) explained away as the result of a bad trip, but a Santa ex machina climax that doesn't yield enough laughs to trade for its narrative convenience.

To be sure, the screenplay could've pushed the Christmas angle into more interesting directions than holiday-themed weed and semi-ironic swelling of familiar music. But even when it feels like a potential honor student goofing off, the series is quick and charming enough to get away with it—even the in-jokes and winking 3-D are fun, something of a feat when self-referentiality has become a comedic norm. Maybe real-time progression is the way to go if the series keeps going: the Up documentaries for underachieving stoners of all colors.

Opens November 4

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