Every generation needs its stoner buddy comedy where the plot is more smoke than fire. The sixties gave us Cheech and Chong and now we’ve got another multi-cultural duo looking for some killer weed and trippin’ good fun with Harold and Kumar. Back in 2004 when John Kerry was getting swiftboated, Harold and Kumar Go to the White Castle gave us our updated comedy of stoners in search of burgers and sex. Since then, as the Bush administration has wheezed its way to its endgame, that first H&K film found a specialized audience and a welcome home in many DVD collections. Now, the sequel — Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay — picks up where White Castle left off and shows up just in time to give the comic finger to hard-ass security types and terrorists in orange jump suits. Does Guantanamo Bay build on the loopy charm of White Castle, or is it just blowing smoke?
Escape from Guanatamo Bay picks up where Go to White Castle leaves off, although it’s hardly crucial knowing that. Harold (John Cho) thinks he has a chance with Maria (Paula Garces) from his apartment building, only she’s leaving for Amsterdam for ten days. He decides to find Maria there and Kumar (Kal Penn) tags along because marijuana is legal in the Netherlands. Strong premise, huh?
The road to love (or a good high, apparently) is never direct, and certainly not for Harold or Kumar. In the airport we meet Kumar’s old flame Vanessa (Danneel Harris) headed to Texas and her oily fiance with White House connections, Colton (Eric Winter). The flight to Amsterdam is turned back after Kumar’s fumbling attempt to light a bong on board has them sent to Guantanamo Bay as suspected terrorists. H & K escape and from this point on the rain of potty language, potty humor and stereotyping comes down heavy. They enlist unlikely allies in their quest to clear their names. One pal in Florida offers a view of full frontal nudity that will make you think “Osama Bin Laden.” Neil Patrick Harris appears for no reason — as he did in White Castle — to inch the plot forward. Harold and Kumar wind up in Texas, where a different George W. Bush steps up to help. More information than this will spoil your appreciation, if that’s possible. Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg wrote and directed.
The Defending Champion
White Castle introduces us to Harold, Kumar and their vacation from convention. Harold works in financial services, Kumar half-heartedly aims for medical school. Both prefer getting high and that’s what happens. Now they have the munchies and only White Castle burgers will satisfy. During their wrong way road trip Harold and Kumar encounter punks, racist cops, religious sex freaks, an enraged raccoon and Neil Patrick Harris. Harold and Kumar reach their goal, but in view of the abuse and toilet humor they witness it’s hard to imagine they still had an appetite. Danny Leiner directed Hurwitz and Schlossberg’s script. Watching it the first time, thinking about its lineage to Cheech and Chong, you have to wonder about when special interest groups call for more diversity in acting roles in Hollywood films, is this really what they were thinking of?
This is not Masterpiece Theatre, and both movies would be easy to dismiss if not for Harold and Kumar’s chemistry and quirky humanity. Socially they are miles beyond Cheech and Chong, but not so far ahead we lose track. H & K question the lives they’ve laid out and challenge the cruelty and intolerance they see in the convenience store and station house. Harold loves Maria and Kumar loves something other than sensemilla. Cho and Penn are well suited and several familiar faces are effective in minor roles (Christopher Meloni in White Castle; Beverly D’Angelo and Rob Corddry in Guantanamo Bay; Neil Patrick Harris in both).
There are distinct differences. White Castle has stronger production values and comic pacing, although Guantanamo Bay takes some mild pokes at homeland security and President Bush. If you were not kindly disposed to Harold & Kumar’s first adventure, the second one won’t change your mind.
Does one entry emerge from the smoke? Yup.
This material is popular enough to keep a Harold and Kumar franchise going for a couple more movies — but no thanks to Guantanamo Bay. It has the feel of a project in which no one could say “no” to the writers-turned-directors. The comedic pieces often gave me a sense of trying too hard for laughs, of thinking the grosser the better. Did anyone really need to see that naked guy at the pool party? Or Kumar making a mess 30 seconds in? A little less would have been a lot funnier.
It’s hard describing White Castle as having more . . . restraint. Especially when it features a pair of college women in a spirited toilet game. The telling distinction comes in the glimpses of the real world White Castle offers. H & K may want to get high, but they do want anyone to suffer the bullying and racism they witness.
This material will appeal to its many fans, and I’m one of them. I won’t be the only one reaching to play the better DVD, our winner, Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle.