Silver Screen: A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas ***

Silver Screen: A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas  ***
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Silver Screen: A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas ***
Bryan Miller

In a very un-stoner move, the pot comedy A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas arrives early, kicking off the holiday movie season just after Halloween. It's probably the only expectation the movie defies; in true sequel fashion, it aims to deliver exactly what its preestablished audience (presumably) wants, with nary a surprise in store. You can pretty much chart the movie's progression by ticking off the inevitable callback gags and cameos as they fall into place: White Castle? Check. Bickering Jewish neighbors? Check. Neil Patrick Harris? Check. Harris even glibly bids the buds adieu by saying, “See you in the fourth one.”

Yet despite offering nothing in the way of surprises and maintaining a plot as bare as the last tree left on the lot on December 24, A Very Harold and Kumar Christmas delivers the goods. It finds the sweet spot between setting up enjoyable comic setpieces (it's really a series of interconnected sketches) and nudging and winking at the audience for its own lack of ambition.

Appropriately, lack of ambition is one of the movie's primary themes. The original Harold and Kumar flick broke the bong mold by posturing its pot-loving duo not as Cheech and Chong-style screwups but a pair of smart, motivated young men who liked to get baked on the weekend. The movie likely succeeded because weekend-warrior reeferheads have long been more common than hippie burnouts, not to mention that it made the guys' dunderheaded antics both funnier and more sympathetic.

But the third film finds Kumar (Kal Penn) distraught over his ex-girlfriend and living in smokey squalor in his old apartment, while Harold (John Cho) has gotten hitched to longtime love Maria (Paula Garces), settled down, and ditched the doobs. The two are barely on speaking terms anymore, but are reunited by a mysterious package that shows up at Kumar's door addressed to Harold, which turns out to contain a joint the size of an electric razor. In his attempt to deliver it, Kumar accidentally destroys Harold's prized Christmas tree the day before the big family party, and Harold's disapproving, X-mas crazed father-in-law (Danny Trejo) is set to flip his lid.

And thus the boys must set out on another one-crazy-night adventure, this time in search of the perfect replacement tree. Along the way they get entangled with a pair of Yuletide scammers, a Ukrainian mobster, a baby that can't stop taking drugs, and Santa Claus himself.

For my drug money, the Christmas edition surpasses the more conceptually interesting first sequel, Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantá namo Bay, which had moments of inspired satire but was too uneven. The third movie succeeds because it entirely gives itself over to cartoonishness, at one point literally morphing into claymation during an acid trip, and featuring absurd sequences like Kumar singlehandedly patching up a shotgun wound to the head in a matter of minutes. The extreme silliness only underscores the frivolity of the film, which is just fine-- this is, after all, a stoner comedy.

Most important, nearly all the internal sketches work, some better than others. The very funny RZA and Da'Vone McDonald have a funny bit as a pair of hucksters pretending to be thugs to intimidate people into overpaying for Christmas trees, and N.P.H. scores big again as the alternative-universe version of himself, a depraved performer who only came out of the closet as a ruse to bed more actresses. Even the 3D works well, if only because the films were never terribly visually interesting anyway, and first-time director Todd Strauss-Schulson uses the technology as a pretty distraction for his red-eyed target demographic.

And there is a certain sweetness underscoring it all. Penn and Cho are a great team, and even though their reconciliation is inevitable, their recommitment to friendship fits well with the feel-good holiday sentiment. It's as heartwarming as a movie can be while still featuring a toddler jonesing for more cocaine.

Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.