By Steven Boone
Somebody needed to do a merciless sendup of Homeland Security bullshit, but are Harold and Kumar up to the task? Not quite. The indelible characters from Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle are not political creatures. They tweak and diffuse class and racial tensions by rendering them silly and inconsequential. Like Team America creators Trey Parker and Matthew Stone, Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay writer-directors Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg seem to believe that America's problems are just a matter of a few uptight douchebags spoiling the party for the rest of us level-headed dudes. (If Al Qaeda and the Pentagon would just chillax...) This is satire for unapologetic stoners and frat nerds who engage politics only when something of a political nature butts in and cock-blocks. Missing from this and most other post-9/11 lampoons are the element that would give them real electricity and bigger, longer laughs: the rude fact of power and powerlessness. Great satire requires a dash of blood.
James Baldwin once wrote that Rod Steiger's hapless white sheriff, who bumps heads with Sidney Poitier in In the Heat of the Night, is a bit comical and endearing only if you've never lived under the power of such a man. I walked out of Harold & Kumar with that feeling—that it's all fun and games 'til somebody gets waterboarded. But if anybody were to get waterboarded in Harold and Kumar's world, it would be a nuisance, not a horror. Like Team America and Idiocracy, this film prefers to push envelopes even a political idiot could understand: Cumshots, explosive farts and dangling dicks are the "outrages" here, nothing to seriously piss off red, blue, left or right. In this universe, race and class become what we wish they were in reality—petty distractions.
When Kumar gets caught attaching tubes and wires to a cylindrical device during his and Harold's flight to legal weed mecca Amsterdam, he has trouble explaining to the air marshals that it's just his harmless invention, a smokeless bong ("a bomb? aaagghh!"). In no time, the boys are in a cell at Guantanamo Bay prison, awaiting tortures that include being fed a "cockmeat sandwich" by hulking prison guard Big Bob. With the help of some jihadi jailmates, they escape before it comes down to that. Hitching a raft ride with some Cuban refugees, they wind up journeying across the American south to reach the one guy that might save them, a Texas blueblood and romantic rival of Kumar with ties to the Bush family. Along the way, they crash a Miami bottomless (rather than topless) pool party, a black ghetto, a Klan rally ("Send them Indians back ta Africa!"), an inbred redneck couple's dinner, and a whorehouse. At every opportunity Hurwitz and Schlossberg work their standard joke: racial profiling pushed to an absurd extreme, then tickled away.
Rob Corddry plays the obligatory nemesis, a Bush administration zealot who talks in idiotic circles, taunting Jewish interrogation subjects (David Krumholtz and Eddie Kaye Thomas from the first H&K) with a bag of coins; homeboys with a can of grape soda. (The reversals: The Jews are lazy potheads; the brothers, including an orthodontist in a ghetto fab mustard jogging suit, are upright citizens; the rednecks have done up their log cabin like a Manhattan loft and fret over their dodgy DSL service.) Though he does this kind of thing much better on The Daily Show, an interrogation scene featuring Corddry and DS veteran Ed Helms (as an interpreter who can't understand clear, plain English spoken by foreigners) is funny as hell. Corddry's bid to top Slim Pickens' warhead ride at the end of Dr. Strangelove is also something to see.
As ever, Harold remains Bud Abbot/Oliver Hardy/Ralph Kramden furious at Kumar throughout, and the stakes remain no higher than when they were chasing White Castle sliders instead of running from Bush's gestapo. The real suspense is in whether the boys will re-connect with their women and their weed. In H&K world, the American Dream is a white chick. Both Korean-American Harold and Indian-American Kumar are as obsessed with the WASP princesses in their tenuous grip as was Travis Bickle with flaxen-haired Betsy in Taxi Driver. Not to veer into a white studies lecture, but the lily whiteness of the boys' love interests is arguably the most provocative creative decision in the H&K series. These horny, passionate young men, conceived as the "Asian best friend" character's revenge upon casually racist Ho'wood, are relieving a century of cinematic blueballs.
If you've seen Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, of course, you know that the only thing the boys love as much as their white women and their dope is nerd icon turned sick fuck Neil Patrick Harris. This time he gives the boys a lift, treats them to whores and does his best to drive straight under the influence of mushrooms. Even though Hurwitz and Schlossberg tend to mash the pedal on their own jokes, the Doogie Howser-in-Bad Lieutenant gag has yet to go stale because Harris plays it so straight and true.
As infuriating and dispiriting as racism is to its object, Harold and Kumar always triumph over it casually, with the jaded confidence of middle class American kids. When, in the film's as-inspired-as-it-gets show-stopper, they chill and smoke bud at Dubya's ranch, the prez grants them a pardon while inhaling some good shit. Harold and Kumar get all timid at first, but the decider's not having it: "Shut the fuck up. Smoke my weed." Funny, but forgettable. Who doesn't know by now that George W. Bush is likely a fun guy to party with and essentially a pawn in the most criminal enterprise America has undertaken since slavery? The joke (and the movie) might have been sublime if it had the balls to show what happens when high-flying frat boys like Harold and Kumar and Dubya come down from the high and discover the blood on their hands.
Steven Boone is a New York-based critic and filmmaker, a contributor to Vinyl is Heavy and the publisher of Big Media Vandalism.