Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle
Director : Danny Leiner
Screenplay : Jon Hurwitz & Hayden Schlossberg
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2004
Stars : John Cho (Harold), Kal Penn (Kumar), Eddie Kaye Thomas (Rosenberg), David Krumholtz (Goldstein), Christopher Meloni (Freakshow), Siu Ta (Cindy Kim), Paula Garcés (Maria), Ethan Embry (Billy), Jon Hurwitz (Tony), Ryan Reynolds (Male Nurse), Sandy Jobin-Bevans (Officer Palumbo), Neil Patrick Harris (Himself)
Director Danny Leiner has perfected the underrated art of the smart dumb movie. First there was his genre-bending goof-fest Dude, Where’s My Car?, which was immediately written off as being as dumb as its protagonists, but on repeat viewing holds up as a deliciously funny, endlessly quotable riff on teen movie clichés and sci-fi silliness. Similar, but even better, is his latest film, Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, a hilarious new entry into the fabled annals of stoner cinema that doesn’t require actually smoking the stuff to get a kick out of it (although it probably wouldn’t hurt).
Harold & Kumar puts front and center one of the structuring absences of most teen comedies—namely, race—in a calculated move that both gives the movie a freshness so many of its ilk lack while also critiquing many of the inequities of modern American society. While that sounds overly heady for a movie that prominently features the el-cheapo fast food joint White Castle in its title, it’s not at all an overstatement to say that Harold & Kumar has as much of interest to say about race relations, the failures of the justice system, and the corporate branding of contemporary culture as any academic journal article or socially conscious movie. And it’s much, much funnier.
The movie’s trailer neatly sums up most of middle America’s understanding of race by declaring that the movie stars “that Asian guy from American Pie and “that Indian guy from Van Wilder.” Going by their full names, the movie’s stars are John Cho, who plays upright investment analyst Harold, and Kal Penn, who plays Harold’s brilliant but slacker roommate Kumar, who loathes the idea of following in his father and brother’s footsteps by going to medical school. After a Friday night of toking up, they get the munchies and decide to head out for a greasy meal of White Castle’s mini-burgers, only to find themselves constantly derailed in a series of increasing bizarre misadventures in middle New Jersey.
The comedy throughout Harold and Kumar is a bit hit and miss, with its grossest gags also being its weakest (a scatological interlude involving two Princeton cuties doing their business in the loudest means possible is more gag-inducing that riotous, and a sequence involving a born-again hick named Freakshow covered with oozing boils overplays its hand right away). But, when the movie hits, it can be extremely funny in the sheer absurdity it heaps on its increasingly exasperated protagonists, including the unexpected appearance of Neil Patrick Harris playing a no-holds-barred, drugged-out, sexed-up fantasy version of himself.
Harold and Kumar are perfect foils for each other. Thrown together because of their race (this is never explicitly stated, but it’s not by accident that two intelligent guys of Asian descent wind up roommates in a Caucasian-dominated world), they differ on virtually every other personality facet save their love of smoking out. While Kumar is perpetually relaxed, happily going about his life with little care for what anyone else thinks, Harold is introverted and driven, even as he constantly runs up against barriers in his work (his white bosses pile weekend work on him so they can take off on their own odyssey) and personal life (he just cannot bring himself to speak a word to the beautiful girl down the hall on whom he has a burning crush).
Ultimately, Harold & Kumar works because they work as characters. If Jesse and Chester in Dude, Where’s My Car? were little more than slap-happy cartoon morons, Harold and Kumar are surprisingly recognizable humans who grow in stature even as everyone else tries to diminish everything about them. Their all-night journey may be hounded by psychotic raccoons, an escaped cheetah, and the aforementioned former child star of Doogie Howser, M.D., but their greatest challenge is wading through a world of casual and overt racism in the form of extreme-sports nuts, segmented university social clubs, and bigoted cops. Much like South Park, Harold and Kumar pulls off the nearly impossible in subverting racial stereotypes by constantly evoking them. The terms in which the situations are depicted are exaggerations, to be sure, but not so much that we don’t recognize the inherent kernel of truth in the gag. (This also goes for the guilty pleasure moment in which the movie simultaneously cops to and makes fun of the incessant sing-alongability of Wilson Phillip’s go-happy pop ode to perseverance “Hold On.”)
Similarly, there is some kind of twisted truth in the movie’s depiction of a craving for a particular brand of fast food—not surprisingly, Harold and Kumar’s movie-length obsession is initially stoked by a TV commercial. As it turns out, the use of White Castle here was one of those happy accidents. The movie was originally to be titled Harold and Kumar Go to McDonald’s, but apparently the executives in charge of the Golden Arches didn’t want to be associated with a movie hellbent on drugs, sex, and racial humor, nor did just about every other fast-food joint in the country. White Castle agreed, I suppose because having their corporate logo smack dab in the middle of a Hollywood movie title aimed at doobage-smoking teenagers seemed like a great way to advertise directly to those most likely to have the late-night munchies and precious little cash to expend.
Harold & Kumar may function on the one hand as an extended commercial for the supposed tastiness of White Castle’s square, oniony mini-burgers, but at the same time it undercuts that commercialism with the sheer absurdity of such bland, mass-produced food standing in as some kind of cosmic nirvana worth risking life and limb for. When Harold and Kumar finally plunk down at a table with what looks like their weight in preprocessed grade-D hamburger meat crammed between tiny little buns, it makes their all-night ordeal all the sillier, even as the glory of their final victory carries with it a surprisingly poignant cathartic rush. I guess taste is in the eye (or the mouth) of the beholder.
Copyright ©2004 James Kendrick
All images copyright ©2004 New Line Cinema