Sex, lies, stereotypes
ON paper, Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle , released in 2004, had all the sophistication of other dumb- male comedies such as the vacuous Dude, Where’s My Car? You’d hardly expect much from a film about two stoned guys in New Jersey who head out to the White Castle burger chain because it has small, square burgers known as Slyders, and have a series of comic misadventures on the way, including encounters with an aggressive racoon and former child star Neil Patrick Harris, who in this universe is a crazed, womanising drug pig.
But just as the films of Judd Apatow ( Superbad, Knocked Up, The 40- Year- Old Virgin ) take plots made for cliched teen comedies in the 1980s — say, guys trying to lose their virginity — and give them heart and a fresh comic twist, Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle was a film about more than the munchies.
It was clever because instead of being teenage slackers, Harold Lee ( John Cho) was a diligent investment banker of Korean heritage, while Kumar Patel ( Kal Penn) had the aptitude to follow his father and brother into medicine. These characters would be mere ethnic stereotypes in most teen comedies — think of the cringeinducing Long Duk Dong in John Hughes’s Sixteen Candles — but instead they’re given centre stage.
Turning a plot as slight as that of White Castle into a terrific movie was a considerable achievement, so coming up with a sequel must have been daunting. But Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg, who wrote the first movie and wrote and directed the sequel, have done pretty well the second time.
As the idea is no longer fresh and the plot has basically the same structure, it doesn’t quite match the original. But the sequel delivers enough new developments to keep it interesting.
Picking up where White Castle left off, Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay shows the duo heading off to Amsterdam so
Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay ( MA15+)
Harold can pursue his dream girl Maria and Kumar can pursue, well, it’s Amster- freakingdam. However, Kumar, who is far too swarthy for most of his fellow passengers, decides to test his new smokeless bong in the airliner’s toilets and he’s mistaken for a terrorist trying to blow up the plane. The pair are arrested and taken to Guantanamo Bay, where they manage to escape and head back to the US to clear their names.
A lot of the comedy is not particularly subtle and this sequel has really gone to town with the toilet and sexual humour, far more than the original. There’s a surprising number of genitals on display, given how touchy the US is about nudity. And that’s not all that’s in your face. Their pursuer, deputy chief of homeland security Ron Fox ( former Daily Show correspondent Rob Corddry), is so desperate to see terrorists that he is unable to process the obvious facts that disprove his conclusions. He’s so racist that he tries to get Kumar’s Jewish friends to talk by waving a small bag of gold in front of them and is unable to comprehend that a black man is a witness, not a criminal. He tries to put the hard word on him by pouring grape soda on the ground ( apparently grape soda is stereotyped African- American food akin to watermelon and fried chicken).
But in its broad strokes, Harold and Kumar manages to make jabs at the ridiculous blindness of the US war on terror that are far funnier than the attempts of more right- on political satire.
Just as South Park works because it likes to offend everybody, not just the Left or Right, Harold and Kumar doesn’t stick to the obvious targets. It does this by really playing with racial stereotypes. It’s easy to judge the outlandish assumptions of Fox, but much of the humour hinges on our tendency to stereotype various ethnic or social groups.
One amusing example has Kumar stopped by airport security for a supposedly random search. Kumar accuses the security guard of racial profiling and the guard expresses astonishment at the charge, given that he is black. Of course, we later discover that Kumar has drugs, so had the search gone ahead it would have been justified, although not for the reason — Kumar’s skin colour — that sparked it in the first place.
As the movie progresses you start to guess that any encounter with a stereotyped character is going to challenge conventional assumptions. But once the audience is on to the game, the script will often flip around and confirm what it has just undermined, with hilarious results. Just because they’re southerners doesn’t mean they’re rednecks, except of course when they really are and it’s oh so disturbing. The filmmakers get away with all of this because everything is so caricatured that Harold and Kumar could almost be living in an alternative universe. So when the pair have an encounter with George W. Bush that’s offensive to both ends of the political spectrum by being disrespectful but not condemnatory, it’s far easier just to go with the flow.
My main criticism of this film is the timing of the release. It came out in the US in April, but with Bush in lame duck mode and the campaign for the next president well under way, some of the humour about homeland security and Bush’s failings is almost passe. It’s lucky then that when all else fails, Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay knows how to pull out a good weed joke and some more Neil Patrick Harris. What more could you ask for?
The second time around: John Cho as Harold and Kal Penn as Kumar, with co- stars, in a sequel that doesn’t quite match the original but features enough new plot twists to keep it interesting
Suspected terrorists: Harold and Kumar are interrogated by Ron Fox ( Rob Corddry)