Don’t laugh if I predict A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas turns out to be both one of the most earnest and subversive studio releases of the season. The two concepts are not unrelated. This franchise has always had a dissident streak: The first film was mostly predicated on the novelty of an Indian and a Korean being stoner buddies, and the second attempted — and failed, but in a good-hearted, not-very-ambitious way — political digs at the War on Terror and George W. Bush. This one starts with Harold (John Cho), now gone fully corporate, watching a gaggle of protesters outside his Wall Street office. Though this lucky bit of OWS topicality goes nowhere, the movie quickly turns its attention to Christmas, which as the conspiratorial War on Christmas has made clear, can be turned to political ends if need be.
It’s been six years since the last adventure, and our heroes have gone their separate ways. While pot-free Harold is now fully legit, with a nice suburban home, an eager-to-reproduce wife, and a domineering, Christmas-obsessed father-in-law (Danny Trejo!), Kumar (Kal Penn) has gone in the opposite direction: When we first see him, he’s leaping into department store Santa Patton Oswalt’s lap to score some weed. Later, when Kumar’s ex announces that she’s pregnant, he’s too baked to process the news.
But come together our heroes must. Soon enough, Kumar arrives unexpectedly at Harold’s house, and one burned-down Christmas tree later, the two are off to salvage the holiday by finding a new tree. Of course, we know that whatever happens, Harold will find a way to stand up to his father-in-law, and Kumar will eventually mend fences with his ex and accept fatherhood.
Much like the plot, the gags here consist mostly of low-hanging fruit. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Yes, Neil Patrick Harris (whose actual persona owes much to his cameo in the first film) will show up to poke fun at himself; this time, the joke is that his homosexuality is an act to score chicks, and that his real-life boyfriend David Burtka is actually his crack dealer. Easy, yes — but funny, too.
There are some inspired moments: When Kumar speculates that Harold’s father-in-law will be so happy upon seeing their new replacement tree that he will “jizz on it,” we see a brief Guy Ritchiean slo-mo shot of Danny Trejo furiously ejaculating onto a Christmas tree. And the idea of state-of-the-art 3-D technology being used to fully immerse the audience in pot smoke works beautifully.
But there is a ghost in this particular machine. As the seasonal plot churns like clockwork, and our heroes accept that they need to conquer their flaws and become better, stronger family men, the film actually makes the stoner ethos part of its portrait of an ordered, happy world. Harold and Kumar may have many challenges to face, but pot is not one of them: The ability to share a joint with a friend, or to have a beloved let you use their urine for a drug test, has a proud place in the film’s vision of blissful, multicultural domesticity. In the end, its very predictability — Harold and Kumar will get high — is at the heart of the film’s gently revolutionary thesis: Spliffs and Christmas, they fit together like Santa in chimneys. Harold & Kumar is a perfectly calibrated Christmas cheer machine designed to prove the awesomeness of friends, family, and drugs.