HAROLD AND KUMAR ESCAPE FROM GUANTANAMO BAY
Reviewed by Sam Hatch
The raunchy pot comedy Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle was one of the biggest surprises of 2004. I attended the screening with lowered expectations, awaiting another sub-American Pie serving of lame jokes and empty characterizations. I was surprised as hell to find that the film not only surpassed its peers, but also delivered one of the funniest scenes in cinema history (the anthropomorphic bag of weed montage).
Perhaps the most refreshing aspect of the film was that while it centered on the aspirations of two stoners looking to subdue their nascent case of uber-munchies, it was really a stealthy meditation on racial stereotypes. Responsibility be damned, the project envisioned the 'stoner dude' archetype as the perfect model of your average all-American male.
Kumar Patel (Kal Penn) and Harold “Roldy” Lee (John Cho) were examples of the first 'pure' Americans in their respective bloodlines, and were consistently pestered by their parents' residual old-world values. Yet they eschewed falling into 'types' (as a doctor and accountant) through the great equalizer of killer bud. The film's ultimate thesis was that whether of Indian, Korean or Jewish descent, these kids were all just regular Joes looking to spark up a doob and catch a glimpse of Katie Holmes' pendulous breasts.
The first film was such a blast of loopy hilarity that I was instantly awaiting the promised sequel, Harold and Kumar Go To Amsterdam. Apparently it was pushed as a straight-to-video option at one point, but the project stalled and evolved long enough to emerge as a different beast entitled Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay. It's a bigger, less killer version of the original that nonetheless earns points for sticking to its guns and expanding the themes of the first movie.
White Castle screenwriters Jon Hurwirz and Hayden Schlossberg step up to the directorial plate here as official custodians of their twisted characters. Visually, there's nothing to write home about, not that I was looking to be stunned by bold framing and avant-garde camera angles. The script does indeed pick up almost immediately after the events of the first film (and the first indulgence in potty humor at least accurately reflects the unavoidable, realistic aftermath of wolfing down dozens of sliders), with Roldy and Kumar preparing to jet off to Amsterdam in search of the voluptuous Maria (Paula Garces) – Harold's dream girl and frequent elevator co-passenger.
But the promises of a fully legal pot bacchanal are kicked to the curb as the story begins its multi-tiered expose on racism and the foolishness of prejudicial thinking. Kumar's strident behavior immediately causes problems at the airport once he begins a “who's darker than who?” fracas with a black security officer with a cocoa complexion. The trouble kicks up another notch once air marshals mistake a smokeless bong for a bomb, which in the sensitive post-9/11 world leads promptly to the titular imprisonment at Gitmo.
The escape proper occurs within the first twenty minutes of the film, so in a way the title actually refers to an evasion of the shadow of the threat of being returned to the Cuban detention center. What we get instead is a Southern road adventure (I loved when Penn referenced their impending journey as being like the film Road Trip, except that it won't suck ass!) following a brief segment of penal (pun intended) crudity. While the reveal of a certain type of 'sandwich' dominates this stretch of film, I also loved Kumar's outraged defense of donuts after a group of real terrorists list the circular snack as an example of American corruption.
Just about every character is guilty of prejudicial thinking at one point or another. Plenty of people mistake our heroes as Arab terrorists (or as Mexicans, as Howard Stern alum Richard Christy points out in a bit part as a beer-swilling Klansman), but they're not innocent either. After a sharp encounter with a rural hunter and his cute, fuzzy prey, their assumptions that his shack of a homestead will be a den of squalor are turned upside down as the pimped out, immaculate interior is revealed.
Yet for all of the family's assertions that they're just normal folk who disprove hillbilly stereotypes, come to find out they have a mutant Cyclops baby in their cellar (which may possibly be the funniest thing in the movie). Rob Corddry's outrageously over the top government doofus Ron Fox is often expressing overtly racist behavior, and again while this is shown as sheer stupidity, there's always some nugget of validation in there.
Such as when a group of muscular, black basketball players are revealed to be upstanding citizens - yet they betray an Achilles heel in the form of grape soda and Kool Aid. Returning Jewish friends Rosenberg (Eddie Kaye Thomas) and Goldstein (David Krumholtz) are lured into confessing via an emptied sack of coins – which Rosenberg quietly attempts to gather quickly at the end of the scene.
It's a form of comedic social commentary that is close in spirit to the animated series South Park, and one that could easily be taken the wrong way if viewed in the wrong light. And I do think it was better played in the first film, and is more effective when left bubbling under the skin instead of exploding all over the screen. But why the hell am I talking about racism in a pot comedy? Fear not, there is plenty of bud on screen, and even president Bush himself (well, actually actor James Adomian impersonating him) sparks up a blunt or two at one point.
There's also a very welcome return of Neil Patrick Harris as a drug-addled, womanizing (and straight) version of himself. He re-encounters our heroes partway through their journey, and assists them in avoiding government road blocks while suffering hallucinatory visions of himself riding unicorns across rainbow-strewn vistas. And if you're a fan of the NPH, you owe it to yourself to stick around through the entire end credits.
The impetus for this crazy odyssey is a chance encounter with Kumar's old flame Vanessa (Danneel Harris) that spurs on a multi-purposed dash to Texas, where the woman is soon to be married to the stiff political hopeful Colton (Eric Winter). Kumar secretly harbors plans to tear apart the wedding once he recalls just how much he loves the girl (revealed during a great flashback that not only sets up their relationship, but reveals a hilarious glimpse at Harold's old look), while his buddy wishes to use Colton's government contacts to clear their names.
This bigger and better storyline actually tames the high a bit, since the first film's plotless plot is part of what made it soar. Here, the stakes are higher and therefore a little less believable and a little less fun. There's also the harsh vibes between the two friends, as Harold turns hostile against his free-spirited chum way too early this time around. There are some brief moments of shared joy, such as when they strut like pimps toward a borrowed sports car - reveling in a moment of rap-video glamour, but they spend a bit too much time sniping and killing the buzz during the ride.
Though occasionally their miseries are pretty funny, such as one scene in a brothel where each man pours his heart out to prostitutes while wild-man NPH brands hookers down the hall. And for a pot comedy, it's pretty brave to offer the thought that marijuana usage may hamper one's ascent into responsible adulthood, even though this thread is ultimately abandoned in favor of a Carpe Dopem outlook.
The first film's usage of pot as a prime example of American-ness is writ larger here, as our heroes learn sage knowledge from a cannabis-fogged Dubya himself. Some of the movie's promotional materials even consisted of a “Vote for Harold and Kumar in '08” campaign package that displayed a red white and blue motif adorned with numerous green leaves of weed. Perhaps Hurwitz and Schlossberg would like to see the Statue of Liberty clutching a bong and a lighter in lieu of its tablet and torch.While it never recaptures the intense level of hilarity of the first (perhaps hindered by the onslaught of Apatow-related genius that's flooded the market since?), and some of the reused gags don't pay off as expected (though I was happy to hear the 'extreme' dudes referenced), the film is still way too smart for its own good. If you're looking to spark up and laugh yourself silly during a number of bizarre encounters and lowbrow antics, you're in for a treat. And if you're looking to laugh yourself silly during a series of sharp and poignant critiques of intolerant behavior and theses on patriotism's ties to reefer usage, you're still in for a treat. It certainly lends a new meaning to the 'pot' in the American melting pot.