Posted by Aaron West, 8/15/04
Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle
Directed by Danny Leiner
Starring: John Cho, Kal Penn, David Krumholtz, Eddie Kaye Thomas, Fred Willard, Neil Patrick Harris
Running Time: 88 minutes
What is the recipe for a successful stoner film? It's gotta have kids, of course, a plot that sounds so inane that it can actually be funny, and plenty of random laughs throughout. That was the formula Danny Leiner tried with "Dude, Where's My Car?". While the film developed a limited cult following, it was a critical failure and is remembered as one of the worse stoner movies. With Harold & Kumar, he tries the same formula again, only this time, he mixes in a little social commentary, and, well dude, it works.
Harold Lee is a low level Asian-American investment banker, trying to work his way up through the system. Kumar Patel is an American-Indian (the country) who has a promising future as a doctor, but he's not ready through that door yet. They are roommates, best friends, and smoke buddies. One Friday evening, Harold gets stuck doing a boatload of extra work for his white co-workers, because, as they say "those Asian guys love crunching numbers." Kumar, dead set on doing some partying, convinces Harold to smoke with him anyway. They sit on the couch, smoke, and finally get the munchies. Only this is not a night for standard takeout, KFC, or anything else like that. They need the "perfect food". Read the title again and you'll understand. Of course they don't just drive 5 minutes to the White Castle around the corner; that would be too easy. This is an adventure, a quest, with plenty of obstacles for them to overcome along the way. Ladies and gentleman, Harold and Kumar go to White Castle.
What sets Harold and Kumar apart from other stoner comedies is the secret ingredient, the assault on racial stereotypes. As always, good comedy is based in reality, and while the slurs and comments are highly exagerrated, they are lampooning something that is unquestionably present in our world, and especially in the world of Hollywood. How many films have you seen with an Asian and an Indian in the lead? Thought so. Harold and Kumar are more than willing to flaunt this lack of diversity for great comic effect. A great example is in one of the opening scenes. After Harold's work buddies push their weekend work onto him, they cruise out of the building with a euphoric rush, and the building guard gives them a thumbs up on the way out. When Harold leaves moments later, he is stopped and checked for identification. Subtle, yet effective, and there are many of these moments throughout the film. Oddly enough, the comedy team that some consider the pioneers of the stoner comedy, Cheech & Chong, were also of ethnic background, yet they hardly even addressed it. Harold and Kumar take advantage of their heritage, to the audience's delight.
A great deal of the exaggerated social commentary is carried out with the characters themselves. With every character, something is said about a group and how they are often portrayed on film, or how they are seen in life. The hippie loser with no short-term memory, the extreme teenage troublemakers, the jesus-loving southern redneck, the blowhard idiotic cops, the african-americans who are arrested because they are black, and plenty more. Silly lines such as "that's not a gun, that's a book" work because of the way the film contrasts these stereotypes.
The inexperienced actors do a good job carrying the film. Harold is played by John Cho, who you might remember as the guy who coined MILF in that movie about a boy and his pie. He is the straight man, the anal retentive low-level lackey who has his life planned out by the minute. Kal Penn (Van Wilder) plays Kumar, and he gives the movie a lot of its charm. He may be a smart doctor-in-the-making, but he conveys the slacker, stoner attitude that this movie is about. He's also the voice of reason who manipulates Harold at every opportunity.
Harold and Kumar is nearly compromised by some horrific scenes, the worst being a bathroom contest between two lovely ladies, called "Battles**ts". Not only is it digusting and drags the film down to a much lower level, but it simply isn't funny. The extreme sports teens were a little too much as well, but all of the weaknesses are overshadowed by some tear-inducing hilarious scenes that will be remembered and repeated for years.
Harold and Kumar is what it is, a fun, refreshing movie that says something important. The question is, who is its audience? Well, the primary audience is obvious, anyone who has overindulged and given in to their cravings, especially those who do so on other occasions. This isn't the only audience, however. Those who keep themselves relatively clean will enjoy the cultural references and the sharp wit, so long as they can keep from being offended by the constant drug use. Like Friday, Half Baked, Dazed and Confused, and the entire Cheech & Chong filmography, Harold and Kumar will become a cult hit, and most likely the beginning of a franchise. Let's just hope they don't lose sight of that comic edge that makes their first film such a joy to watch.