A film review by Craig J. Koban


2008, R, 105 mins.

John Cho: Harold / Kal Penn: Kumar / Rob Corddry: Ron Fox / Roger Bart: Dr. Beecher / Neil Patrick Harris: himself

Written and directed by Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg

In terms of its strident political leanings, the affectionately titled HAROLD AND KUMAR ESCAPE GUANTANAMO BAY is clearly pro-Bush… 

…and it certainly is very much in support of the current U.S. Commander-in-Chief. 

The film is the direct sequel to the surprise 2004 cult comedy hit, HAROLD AND KUMAR GO TO WHITE CASTLE, which despite sounding like some sort of shameless product plug, was actually a surprisingly pleasurable romp.   That film was crass, crude, filthy minded, and very, very pro-marijuana, but the film was not just another in a long list of banal CHEECH AND CHONG rip offs.  Rather, HAROLD AND KUMAR  was really, at its heart, a bit more of  sensitive and multicultural CHEECH AND CHONG.  The two characters are Hindu-American (that’s Kumar) and Asian-American respectively and there were several times where the best laughs to be had were not at the expense of gross out gags and bathroom humor, but rather in spite of and at the expense of their own ethnic heritage. 

Oh…the film was arguably the very first that I have ever seen that had an Asian look at his Hindu stoner buddy and ask, “Why is Neil Patrick Harris so damn horny!?” 

I think the overall key to my appreciation of the first film was that, deep down, the main characters were likeable, funny, hyper intelligent and quick witted, and sweet and sincere underneath their more outwards pot-smoking, slacker facades.  The film also generated a lot of comic mileage as a result of dealing with issues of racial prejudice that Harold and Kumar dealt with on a daily basis.  There were tons of scattered jokes that could aptly be described as being “racist” in the film, but I think that label could be deflected easily by the fact that many of those gags were perpetrated by the duo themselves.  One of my favorite comments from the film is when Harold explains why he will never hook up with a fellow Princeton Asian girl because she is a “Twinkie: yellow on the outside, but white on the inside.” 

HAROLD AND KUMAR 2 goes for much of the same vibe, but only with intermittently successful results.  Like its antecedent, this sequel is light, breezy, and silly beyond all recognition.  It's two stars are as affable as ever and there is a definitive aura about the whole enterprise that it is absolutely willing to do anything necessary to get a laugh.  Yet, I think what this sequel lacks is the giddy simplicity of the first, where the two super high dudes engaged on an ridiculously inane and uncomplicated journey – albeit initially – to cure their pot induced munchies by going to the White Castle for some mini-hamburger sustenance.  In HAROLD AND KUMAR 2 the pair engage in a story that seems a bit too needlessly dense and beset by contrivances.  What this does, in effect, is make the film less of a cohesive whole and feel more like a series of half-assed late-night television skits where some of the pratfalls and jokes work famously, whereas too many others fall flat. 

What’s a bit worse is the notion that the film heavily focuses on the least successful elements of the first film, which is a considerable amount of jokes revolving around disgusting bodily fluids and sexual innuendo.  It’s almost as if screenwriters Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg (who penned the first film’s script) stood up and proclaimed, “We need more raunch, more hard core nudity, more weed and drug jokes, more f-bombs, and more jokes about ejaculate, urine, fecal matter, and farting!”  What they seemed to forget was the wit and charm of the smarter elements of the first film, where its heroes bridged the gap between being fiendishly clever creations and inane caricatures. 

Jon Cho (the dude in AMERICAN PIE that immortally called Stiffler’s mother a “M.I.L.F.”) reprises his role as Harold and Kal Penn returns as his frequently inebriated and hotheaded friend, Kumar.  The sequel takes place within what seems like minutes of the first film:  After successful curing their cravings for White Castle burgers (and after getting Neil Patrick Harris to pay them them for leaving “love stains” in the back of their car), Harold and Kumar decide to immediately begin their next adventure and travel to Amsterdam.  Their motives are not just for the sake of smoking weed legally; they also want to track down the love of Harold’s life, Maria (Paula Garces).   

Problems arise from the onset for the pair.  Kumar is stopped by an airport security officer for a “random check”, which offends Kumar and he quickly labels the guard of racial profiling (the fairly pasty skinned guard defends himself by stating, “But I’m black,” to which Kumar hilariously deadpans, “Dude, you’re barely brown”).  After this hiccup the two board the airplane, but one Waspy old woman seems to suffer from Taliban vision:  In another funny bit, we see what she sees, which is Kumar, dressed in full terrorist regalia, miming to her how he is going to send the plane down.  This well-timed gag proves that anything – even the memory of 9/11 – can be the source of comedy.  The key here is that the joke does not use the suffering of 9/11 as the source of the joke, but rather the unstoppably paranoia and ignorance that people have developed in its wake. 

Anyhoo’, Kumar makes one gigantic blunder mid-flight: He brings a bong on board and wants to join the new mile high club.  That pesky racist woman catches Kumar with the device, which looks bomb-like, but Kumar politely states that it’s “just a bong,” which everyone on board misreads as bomb.  Soon, Harold and Kumar are quickly detained by a acid-tongued government stooge named Ron Fox (Ron Corddry), who soon surmises that North Korea and India are in cahoots to plot an attack with Al Qaeda against the US.  Faster than you can say “Neil Patrick Harris loves trim,” the duo are sent packing to the prison on Guantanamo Bay, where they are forced to almost endure eating a sandwich that involves a particular male appendage of the guard.  Yuck.

Thankfully – and in the nick of time – they escape the compound and pose as illegal immigrants.  Meanwhile, Fox has detained Harold and Kumar’s parents and gets a translator to get information from them (in one zany moment, when Harold’s parents speak English and state that they’ve been American citizens for decades, the translator incredulously whispers to Fox, “They’re speaking some sort of unfamiliar dialect").  Harold and Kumar are then forced to elude capture and engage in another mandatory series of wacky adventures, which involves (let me get my note pad out from the screening I was at): a party involving bottomless, not topless, women…and one man; a run-in with a red necked southern couple that are actually siblings that have an inbred son that happens to be a cyclops; a visit to a whorehouse where the two get mushy and teary-eyed with some very understanding and sympathetic prostitutes; a visit to a KKK rally, where Kumar unexpectedly reveals how he feels the clan are actually kind of cool as party animals; and finally…yet another run-in with Neil Patrick Harris, once again played with voyeuristic, hedonistic, and misogynist glee by…Neil Patrick Harris, who spends the film being high on mushrooms and Jack Daniels.  

He also sees unicorns. 

Wait a tick…Harold and Kumar also crash Camp David while President Bush is on some R and R and find out that – gee whiz – the prez is a really, really cool dude that likes weed, arcade games, and telling off his dad.  Dubya has one weakness: Dick Cheney, whom he reveals “scares him to death.” 

I laughed a lot during Harold and Kumar 2.  The scene mentioned involving Bush is a real howler, as is every moment with Harris, who once again proves why he has given one of the ballsiest, tawdry, and hilarious cameos in a long time (he’s not playing himself, per se, but a satirical version of himself, which shows what a sport he is).  There is also a very amusing flashback that shows when the then-straight arrowed Kumar first got introduced to the chronic via a cute calculus student named Vanessa (Danneel Harris) and an even more viciously weird fantasy of Kumar’s that involves a sexual three way between himself, Vanessa, and...a human sized bag of pot with arms and legs. 

HAROLD AND KUMAR 2 once again generates some decent laughs based on the shallowness of ethnic and racial stereotypes.  Three moments are small little gems:  The first involves Harold and Kumar driving through a southern hood where they unintentionally stop a street basketball game by running over a fire hydrant.  The gigantic and menacing African men lurch towards them with crowbars and Harold and Kumar flee, but one of the hulking brutes is dumbfounded, seeing as he and his buddies where just trying to fix their flat tire (it’s later revealed that he’s an orthodontist).  The second involves the stars going to the home of a deer hunter, which looks like a shoddy and decrepit shack on the outside, but when they get inside the place is decked out and looks like the cover of an Ikea catalogue.  The last is one of the slyest scenes in the movie and has Agent Fox interrogating two of Harold and Kumar’s friends, both of whom are Jewish.  Fox jingles a small bag filled with money in front of them in hopes of forcing them to talk.  After he throws the pennies on the table and leaves the room, the two quickly steal the loot. 

Those scenes are side-splitters, but for some of the smartness that HAROLD AND KUMAR has with it humor, there are far too many gags that are largely still-born.  As much as I liked the film’s humorous attacks on racial bigotry and the political hypocrisy of Patriot Act-era America, the film is too awash in tastelessly graphic and gratuitous debauchery.  HAROLD AND KUMAR 2 is too scattershot and lewd for its own good and the film seems keen on being a perceptive and bawdy political satire on one hand, but on a heavier hand it seems more willing to be an excessive exercise in gross-out pratfalls.  The film feels, as odd as this sounds, too shallow and mindless at times, which stunts some of the film’s intelligent satire.  Also, there are too many disposable subplots, especially the one concerning Kumar’s ex-girlfriend Vanessa and her new right-wing fiancé, Colton (Eric Winter) that hits every methodical and predictable beat. 

HAROLD AND KUMAR ESCAPE FROM GUANTANAMO BAY seems fairly critic-proof: Fans of the first film will eat up all of its coarse, unrefined, and tawdry 105 minutes.  I guess this is, at its core, a stoner film, but what I liked so much about H&K Part One was its craftiness and aptitude with its subtle commentary on intolerance and bias alongside its more flamboyant, go-for-broke laughs.  Some scenes in this sequel are inspired moments of socio-political parody, but HAROLD AND KUMAR 2 seems more willing to drown itself in dumb, nauseating laughs when it should be a more satisfying and riotous comedy about governmental-induced mistrust and repression.  In the end, the film is sporadically hilarious and droll, but more often than not its attempts at pushing the boundaries of R-rated debauchery make this sequel too unhinged.  What it needs is more subversive comic refinement and less unpleasant crudeness. 

Hmmmm…then again…what would NPH do?

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