Thursday, December 10, 2015

Throwback Thursday: A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas

A Very Hard-to-Read 3D Christmas Stub
Usually on Throwback Thursday, I randomly pull out from my desk cabinet--with my eyes closed--a movie ticket stub I saved. Then I discuss the movie on the stub and maybe a little bit of its score, which might be now streaming on AFOS. Today, instead of drawing some random ticket, I'm going to focus today's TBT piece on a Christmas movie whose stub I've kept. This is the final post of the AFOS blog's year-long TBT series. A TBT piece was the blog's first post of 2015, so this final TBT piece is the blog's final post of 2015. The blog will resume with all-new posts some time in 2016.

A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas is a triple Christmas miracle. It's a threequel that actually doesn't suck, a slapstick holiday comedy that doesn't suck and the hard-R Asian American Christmas comedy movie I--an Asian American who prefers his Christmas movies to be either irreverent (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, The Nightmare Before Christmas) or non-sentimental (The Ref)--always dreamed of.

Tired of comedies that don't reflect the diverse Jersey milieu they grew up in, writing partners Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg came up with Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle--starring John Cho as Harold (company man by day, pothead by night) and Kal Penn as Harold's more laid-back best friend Kumar--as an antidote. Hurwitz said, "Eventually we decided, wouldn't it be different if we wrote a movie where the Asian guys weren't the 'best friend,' and they were front and center." The hilarious and unabashedly crude Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle delivered a French fry grease-covered middle finger to Asian American stereotypes, placed Asian American men in non-stereotypical roles and gave them well-rounded and genuinely funny characters to play--11 years before Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang entertainingly did the same on Master of None and Fresh Off the Boat did the same with a Chinese American family very loosely (while some have viewed as way too loosely) based on restaurateur Eddie Huang's real-life fam.

I've also always wanted to see an Asian American version of Lemmon and Matthau anchoring a buddy movie. Thank fuck for the Harold & Kumar movies, in which Cho and Penn are our Lemmon and Matthau (I wish Cho and Penn would do 11 movies together like Lemmon and Matthau did, and in these buddy movies, they would get to leave behind Harold and Kumar and play other characters, like maybe an Ice Cube type of character for Cho, who does a dead-on Cube). Hurwitz, Schlossberg and director Danny Leiner broke new ground with the first Asian American pothead buddy comedy. In 3D Christmas (spelled with no hyphen between the 3 and D), Hurwitz, Schlossberg and director Todd Strauss-Schulson attempt to break some new ground with the first hard-R Asian American Christmas flick, and the result is both a more consistently funny Harold & Kumar sequel than Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay (unlike Guantanamo Bay, it doesn't recycle gags from the first movie) and a much more visually inventive installment than the previous two.

The visual flair of 3D Christmas--despite an evidently low budget that has Detroit attempting to pass itself off as New York--is mainly due to the addition of Strauss-Schulson, a more visually adventurous director than Leiner and the duo of Hurwitz and Schlossberg, who shared directing duties on Guantanamo Bay (Strauss-Schulson's currently receiving good notices for his horror comedy The Final Girls), and the work of Laika, the great Portland stop-motion animation studio behind Coraline, ParaNorman and The Boxtrolls, during the 2011 threequel's Claymation drug trip sequence. Laika's sequence is a raunchy and gory parody of Rankin-Bass holiday specials that has Harold and Kumar seeing nothing but Rankin-Bass when their search for a Christmas tree for Harold's house gets disrupted by hallucinations caused by hallucinogen-spiked eggnog. In addition to a Claymation sequence, 3D Christmas treats the audience to a spoof of hyper-stylized heist-movie planning sequences, parodies of Sin City and Zack Snyder movies, a holiday musical number (and it too is raunchy, of course, with Kumar's '90s TV idol Neil Patrick Harris, once again playing a hyper-masculine, constantly-high-on-E version of himself, appearing to have orally satisfied a female dancer right in the middle of it) and sight gags about the ridiculousness of the film's 3-D gimmick.

The 3-D sight gags still manage to be funny even in 2-D. There's an especially crazy 3-D gag involving both a Christmas tree and Danny Trejo, who plays the tough and occasionally racist father-in-law Harold wants so badly to impress ever since he married Maria (Paula Garces), his love interest in the previous two movies. The Trejo/Christmas tree gag is classic Harold & Kumar.

Like the movie itself, the original score by William Ross isn't much of a game-changer, but it's a lot of fun. Ross, who frequently scored episodes of Tiny Toon Adventures, gets to revisit his Warner Bros. Animation scoring past for this Warner Bros. movie that's basically a live-action Warner cartoon, and the best parts of his 3D Christmas score are not the faithful covers of Christmas standards like "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" but Carl Stalling-style parodies of scores like James Horner's Mask of Zorro score ("Merry Christmas!"), any score where Lisa Gerrard's wailing ("Eggtion") and Don Davis' Matrix score ("Super Baby").

Ross' spoof of Davis' work on The Matrix is especially amusing because he was an orchestrator on The Matrix Reloaded. He wrote the Matrix-style motif for a scene where a toddler (triplets Ashley, Chloe and Hannah Coss) who's been accidentally high on weed and cocaine somehow develops superhuman strength and prepares to attack a famously vicious Ukrainian gangster (Elias Koteas). The brief motif is a great misdirect too: it tricks the audience into thinking the film is going to bust out yet another hacky parody of The Matrix's bullet-time scenes, but instead, the hacky bullet-time parody we're all expecting (fortunately) never happens.

Thomas Lennon's coked-up toddler daughter was the least favorite part of 3D Christmas for film critics who bizarrely cry foul over making humor out of kids inadvertently getting high. Like critic Stephanie Zacharek--a fan of White Castle and Guantanamo Bay who found 3D Christmas to be underwhelming but enjoyed its coked-up baby scenes--said back in 2011, the coked-up baby gags are a pretty daring move in a contemporary culture where kids are mini-potentates who must be protected from bad influences at all costs. Without the toddler's accidental encounters with drugs, 3D Christmas would have been deprived of one of my favorite scenes in the movie: Kumar's choice of "Wu-Tang Clan Ain't Nuthing ta Fuck Wit" as a lullaby to calm her down.

(Photo source: The Nihilistic Cinephile)

RZA, whose voice is all over "Wu-Tang Clan Ain't Nuthing ta Fuck Wit," even makes a cameo as a Christmas tree salesman who likes to fuck around with customers and role-play with his business partner (Da'Vone McDonald), who, at one point, desperately pleads with RZA's character to "play Angry Black Guy this time." Their scene is another great example of the Harold & Kumar movies' playful approach to racial stereotypes, which is basically "Yes, they're terrible, but you can't let them get you down, and the only way to cope with them and various other forms of racism is to laugh about them or mock them." It's not surprising why Harold and Kumar toke up a lot. Weed helps them get through the racism they have to put up with.

But in 3D Christmas, Harold has given up the herb because it lowers sperm count, and he's trying to have a baby with Maria (meanwhile, Kumar has distanced himself from an increasingly money-grubby Harold, dropped out of med school and replaced Harold with a bong--and sometimes Amir Blumenfeld--as his best friend). So in a deleted scene where an old Jewish lady at a Chinese restaurant mistakes the Korean American Harold for a Chinese waiter, Harold reacts not with a stoned laugh but in a way that's typical for those of us when we don't have a joint or a blunt to cope with racism: silent, world-weary resignation.

Hurwitz and Schlossberg frequently get criticized for the huge amounts of naked women and gay-panic jokes (fortunately, 3D Christmas has none of the gay-panic jokes that were all over White Castle and Guantanamo Bay) during their trilogy. But they've remarkably gotten two things right--and they've never gotten praise for it--in their three attempts to give Asian Americans the kinds of leading comedic roles they never previously got, which, if Hurwitz and Schlossberg hadn't been so careful or understanding, could have turned into self-serving, one-sided or clueless acts of white saviordom: 1) the way that race is an intrinsic part of the lives of people of color and affects everything we, as people of color, do; and 2) the many different ways we deal with racism, as opposed to just one way. A lot of us prefer to laugh about it, like Harold and Kumar do when they see the police artist sketches of themselves on TV at the end of White Castle. Meanwhile, the two Christmas tree salesmen in 3D Christmas prefer role-playing and running cons as their way of dealing with it. Or there are others who prefer to be more Zen about it, like the Gary Anthony Williams character in White Castle, who tells Harold that he realized long ago that there's no sense in getting riled up by racism, plus he has a really large penis, and that keeps him happy.

Those two things these two Jews managed to get right in these movies they've written as tributes to their Asian American friends (they named Harold after a real-life friend of theirs, Harold Lee) are perhaps the greatest gift the Harold & Kumar franchise has presented to us, even more so than crazy Neil Patrick Harris cameos, clever Claymation sequences, naked nun shower scenes or a waffle-making sentient robot named WaffleBot.

Nah, wait a minute. Nothing can top WaffleBot. Okay, they're the second greatest gift.

None of William Ross' score cues from A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas are currently in rotation on AFOS, but the triumphant-sounding "WaffleBot Rescue" ought to be. The AFOS blog resumes in 2016.

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