It’s November, which means, for Hollywood and department stores it’s officially the start of the Christmas season. While most of us are still finishing off our Halloween candy, the studios have already started churning out holiday films, looking for their next Christmas classic. Both A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation have all the hallmarks – the gathering together of family and friends, the search for a tree, the overtones of forgiveness and hope for the future. But It’s a Wonderful Life these are not. You’re more likely to find Grandpa roasting over an open fire than chestnuts, and if Jack Frost is nipping at anything, it’s probably your nether regions.
It’s raunchy bromance vs. affable slapstick, and they’re out to see who has the biggest sugarplums.
It’s been three years since Harold and Kumar escaped from Guantanamo, and the two have drifted apart. Harold (John Cho) has traded in his pot-smoking life for a Wall Street gig, a beautiful wife and a cozy house in the suburbs. Kumar (Kal Penn, who famously took time off from a job in the Obama administration to make this film) is still an unemployed slacker who spends his days getting high.
After two years of estrangement, the two are reunited when Kumar receives a mysterious package addressed to his old pal. In the process of delivering it to Harold, he accidentally burns down the beloved 12-foot fur tree belonging to Harold’s terrifying father-in-law. This sends the two friends on a quest to find the perfect replacement tree, an odyssey which quickly devolves into an epic, all-night romp with naked nuns, waffle-making robots, cocaine-addicted babies and most strangely of all, Neil Patrick Harris himself.
The Defending Champion
It’s the third installment of the National Lampoon vacation series, and this time, instead of the Griswold family hitting the road, their relatives have all come to visit them for the holidays. Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) is still the epitome of the well meaning yet hapless father. This year he is determined to give his family a “fun, old fashioned Christmas” and tries his hardest to get his long-suffering wife, Ellen (Beverly D’Angelo) and their two disgruntled children (Juliette Lewis and Johnny Galecki) into the holiday spirit. Of course, his dream of holiday bliss soon gives way to reality, as everything that could go wrong, does. The perfect Christmas tree doesn’t actually fit into the living room; the 250,000 lights he’s decorated the house with don’t work; the in-laws start fighting before they’ve even crossed the threshold; and the redneck cousins show up uninvited in a trailer that even the Beverly Hillbillies would be ashamed to be seen in.
Throughout it all, Clark struggles to maintain his quickly fading yuletide joy, holding on for the long-awaited arrival of his Christmas bonus – which turns out to be a subscription to the jelly-of-the-month club. Then all hell breaks loose.
The holidays are a time for family, and let’s be honest – sometimes families suck. Both Christmas Vacation and Harold & Kumar showcase their fair share of unwanted relations. Harold must deal with his numerous and intimidating in-laws, while Clark, too, must navigate the perils of having too many Griswolds in one house. Unfortunately for us viewers, if not for Clark himself, there are so many relatives that after awhile they end up being mostly background. Each character gets a moment or two of individual hilarity, but mainly they’re used as a group to react to Clark’s latest plight.
Harold & Kumar is also jam-packed (or is it jelly-packed?) with oddball characters – from the mall Santa who deals holiday-themed pot (Winter Wonder Weed, anyone?) to Harold’s Christmas-tree-obsessed father-in-law, to Neil Patrick Harris’ fictionalized sociopathic version of himself. Yet these characters don’t feel like just zany background or set-pieces.
Both films have relatively simple plots whose sole purpose is to propel their characters into increasingly over-the-top scenarios. While most humor in Christmas Vacation comes from common holiday situations – getting the tree, putting up decorations, trying to find a decent gift at a packed department store and dealing with the family drama – the situations Harold and Kumar find themselves in are absurd to the point of being surreal. If dancing in a Radio City Music Hall-type Christmas show with Neal Patrick Harris seems too ordinary, there are bits where they find themselves running from a Ukrainian mobster after a sexual misunderstanding involving his daughter, shooting Santa in the face, and even trapped in a Claymation world, where they’re chased by a giant snowman after ingesting eggnog laced with hallucinogens. Plenty of jokes fall flat in both films, but H&K gets extra credit for inventiveness, and besides, Christmas Vacation just can’t keep up with its rival’s rapid-fire pace.
Harold & Kumar certainly offers far more vulgarity than Christmas Vacation, but it also offers more heart – surprising, considering that Vacation‘s writer John Hughes had more than a little experience bringing heartwarming emotion to a long list of film comedies. (Maybe he should have directed instead of Jeremiah S. Chechik.) We know that Clark’s family is just trying to humor him because, really, what choice do they have? In Harold & Kumar there’s more of a sense of partnership. These two may have been estranged, but they’re in it together. The film may be filled with drug use and phallus jokes, but at its core, it’s about two friends reconnecting and inching their way toward adulthood.
While Christmas Vacation offers a few uproariously funny moments, I found Harold and Kumar to be more consistently on-target. Maybe it’s because I’ve seen Christmas Vacation one too many times, or maybe it’s because director Todd Strauss-Schulson (a feature-film newcomer) and writers Jon Hurwitz & Hayden Schlossberg (using characters they created in the earlier H&K films), have fashioned a subversive, frat-boy comedy that actually makes you care about its characters.
I didn’t think a movie filled with pot smoke, penis gags and Claymation violence could put me in the Christmas spirit, but I was pleasantly surprised that it did. Which is why I think that this Christmas you should give yourself the gift of our winner, A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas. Besides, Christmas Vacation will probably be on TV when you get home.