Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Nov 15, 2011 2:11 pm 
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Together again, with flying objects

In Play It Again, Sam, Woody Allen told Diane Keaton 80 percent of life was showing up. And so it is for this new Harold & Kumar comedy. The jokes have grown sparse and lame, the outrage has wilted, and Harold & Kumar are wrinklier and jowlier (John Cho, who plays Harold, is close to 40; Kal Penn, who is Kumar, has filled out). But they're here: they showed up, and that counts for something -- actually quite a lot. Neil Patrick Harris shows up too, for another extended cameo, with the duo drawn into his song-and-dance number. The racial provocations (and ironies) and the stoner extremes that lent a giddy pleasure to the 2004 debut outing, Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, aren't ramped up; they're toned down -- except that the marijuana smoke floats out into the audience in great gray clouds. That's kind of cool, if you think, as I do, that 3D is basically silly. One of the best things about this movie is its 3D, which is technically proficient, only to be self-mocking, with tons of stuff thrown at the audience, beginning with raw eggs in the opening sequence, which makes fun of the "Occupy" movement. Come to think of it, there's a touch of political outrage. But it's thrown away. Nearly thrown away is a short sequence when the boys are so stoned they turn into claymation figures. It's tantalizingly trippy. The fact that the best parts are too brief and the worst are overextended is one good sign that the director, Todd Strauss-Schulson, didn't really know what he was doing.

The sexual wildness of Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay (2008) has faded into a laborious wild party given by the oversexed daughter of a Mafia boss (Elias Koteas, who deserved better), and, later on, a stuck penis. The last film's delightfully raucous political satire (of the Bush era, now very much due for a biting Obama-update) just isn't there at all. (The writers, Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg, who also directed the second film, have remained on duty for all three outings.) Another tantalizing moment comes with a couple of black tree sellers played by rapper RZA and Da'Vone McDonald, who get off on scaring white customers, trading back and forth on which of them will do the angry black man schtick. It's over before it has a chance to have any effect. Badly overdone: the grating joke of a female toddler who repeatedly gets high on hash and cocaine. Harris stars in his own musical Christmas special, and off stage revels in the fiction that he's a rapacious womanizer and his gayness only a publicity put-on. It's tiresome but it's fluent: fans of his appearances won't be too disappointed.

Friendship gets a looking at. After all, how long can stoner pals remain stoner pals, if one of them wants to accomplish something in his life? Harold is that guy. He's put down weed to become a banker and is now married, with a nice house and a kid. He tells Kumar, who comes to reconnect, that studies show every seven years people change half their friends. His new best friend, however, is a bourgeois white man bore, a toady fairly crying out to be dropped. Just for laughs, 'Raldy's wife Maria (Paula Garces) is a Latina with a gangsterish tattoo-covered father (Danny Trejo) who's a Nazi about genuine 12-foot Christmas trees. This and the inexplicably excessive Christmas decorations in front of Harold's house are tacked on to drive home the holiday theme. And of course there must be Santa. He's a stoner himself, it turns out, and also the deus ex machina who brings the boys back together by an odd but thematically appropriate device. All this is incredibly creaky. Luckily the old chemistry between Kal Penn and John Cho is still there, and with age, though we do question why these two guys are still doing these silly comedies, Penn has grown even more soulful and mellow and Cho still retains his dapper, deadpan Buster Keaton quality. It's a pleasure to watch them at work together.

Kumar becomes a nod to the fact that marijuana is not really a key to personal success. Like a true pothead, he has gone nowhere at all over the past seven years. He still occupies the old apartment, and it, like him, has gone to seed, a situation exacerbated since its occupant has been kicked out of medical school and subsequently dropped by his girlfriend, Vanessa (Danneel Harris), who, in the Apatow tradition for geeks and fatboys, is an improbable babe. When did Kumar have anything to offer? (Well, he's in this successful franchise, isn't he?)

When Kumar shows up at Harold's, lured by bromance renewal agent Santa, the Latino father-in-law's giant real Christmas tree catches fire, leading to a frantic comedy of errors as both guys race to replace it, running into NPH (Harris) along the way and getting dragged to the Mafia daughter's party. There is a contest involving the throwing of tennis balls, a feeble bit of business but an excuse for showing what 3D can do when allowed to go to Rube Goldberg extremes. There is a very gory incident with Santa, which does allow us to reminisce about how bracingly inappropriate everything was in the first two movies. Harold & Kumar are reunited. It doesn't seem to matter much what happens to anybody else.

It's pretty painless. It's even somewhat fun. But the jokes are lame. They hardly even try. The supreme irony for me is that the only thing I really liked was the 3D. I loathe 3D. For the first time I walked out of the theater, looked around me, and realized 3D, when smoothly administered, without the cardboard-cutout effects, captures an aspect of the world 2D does not capture -- its three-dimensionality! In a one-dimensional comedy, that's one good joke.

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