Harold & Kumar: Escape to Reality

Courtesy of Jamie Trueblood

Courtesy of Jamie Trueblood
Kal Penn (left) and John Cho (right) star in “Harold and Kumar: Escape from Guantanamo Bay.”

Editor’s Note: It has come to our attention that certain portions of this article were plagiarized from A.O. Scott’s review of “Harold and Kumar: Escape from Guantanamo Bay” in the New York Times. The editors sincerely apologize to Mr. Scott and the Times for this oversight, and the author has been disciplined.

If you think that the last seven years of the Bush administration were a joke, then “Harold and Kumar: Escape From Guantanamo Bay” is a great movie for you. It is far from perfect however the fact that a movie with the title “Harold and Kumar: Escape From Guantanamo Bay” even exists and is playing in theaters in wide-release is a cause for hope, or maybe alarm.
In any case, it elicits a few laughs.
Racial stereotyping of Asian-Americans has come a long way since the days of “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” and the most recent installment of “Harold and Kumar” is a testament to that. Kal Penn’s experience as an Indian-American child growing up in New Jersey in the early ’90s is an example of the way racial stereotyping has evolved.
“I hate the movie ‘Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.’ It’s fictitious but for some reason they made this place India,” Penn said. “And these people are eating, like, snakes and monkey brains and weird stuff like that. I remember going into lunch the weekend after this movie came out in elementary school, and nobody would sit next to me. It was like, ‘Ahh, you got monkey brains in your sandwich.’ It would have been very easy for them, whoever the producers or directors were, to maintain that as a fictitious place. But instead, they seemingly purposefully decided to make it a particular country, which was unfortunate, I think.”
Penn continued, “The thing I really love about Harold and Kumar is that they’re two All-Americans on which you’re able to deconstruct race in a very smart, witty way. But the movie is certainly not about that. It’s just about two guys who you can relate to, which I think is the greatest statement of how far we’ve come with a film like that.”
The movie’s simple genius lies in the characters. Harold Lee (John Cho), a Korean-American investment banker and Kumar Patel (Penn), an Indian-American would-be medical student are a post-college odd couple in a world where prejudice and ignorance battle hypersensitivity and political correctness. Cho and Penn effectively pull off raunchy comedy as common sense.
Penn, who knows just how to bounce his quick delivery off of his mischievous features never reduces Kumar to schtick and plays him as a well-developed character. Cho plays Harold’s character with ease, giving his constant exasperation some vigor and snap. And the fact that they pull of their characters with such ease is a testament to their acting skills because as Penn stated, “In real life John Cho is more of a Kumar and I am more of a Harold. So the roles are definitely switched.”
We once again join stoners Harold and Kumar in their never-ending quest to get high. In the first film we followed them with no plot, as they tried to quell their munchies with a trip to White Castle. This time, they leave for Amsterdam, the land of legalized weed and a pothead’s haven. Unfortunately, their plans fail when they are mistaken for terrorists on the plane after Kumar gets caught with a homemade smoke-free bong, which is mistaken for a bomb. The boys are then taken into custody, questioned and sent to Guantanamo Bay.
They breakout from Guatanamo Bay an hour after being locked up and escape from “dick sandwiches” (a crass take on the forced abuse prisoners face) just in time. The goal of the movie now changes from looking for weed to trying to clear their names as terrorists escaping from the government.
Up until their escape, the movie is smart and funny, touching upon racial stereotypes post- 9/11 at the airport. After this the movie takes a bit of downward spin as Harold and Kumar run into strange characters and find themselves in the middle of even stranger situations (the bottomless party).
While some of these strange situations work, they lack substance, and take away from the movie’s smart and underlying political commentary. What saves the movie, and perhaps what it will be most remembered for, is its romantic-comedy ending. Kumar stops a wedding by releasing his inner-nerd and reciting his love poem from college titled “The Square Root of Three.” The poem is a meditation on solitude framed around irrational numbers.
The poem was actually written by the directors’ (Jon Hurwtiz and Hayden Schlossberg) classmate, David Feinberg and was published in their school’s literary magazine.
“We’re really glad we had a friend in high school who loved math and wrote poems about it,” Furwitz said in an interview with the Star-Ledger in New Jersey. “When we were thinking about Kumar’s back story and trying to find a fulfilling ending that is a little bit different, we decided to use this poem we loved in high school.”
The film is funnier, raunchier and smarter than its predecessor. They drop in on a “bottomless” pool party, stumble across incestuous hicks and their cyclops child, crash a KKK rally, go to a brothel with Neil Patrick Harris and smoke weed with a President Bush-impersonator. Despite all of this, it is a movie that wins in post 9/11 political commentary by being a-political on the surface, all the while pointing out the extreme stupidity and insanity that has swept the country’s foreign and domestic policies.
“You realize the absurdity of what these two guys are going through. I mean, the fact that they are mistaken for terrorists, sent to Guantanamo Bay, they have to escape, they end up in Miami, they have to go through the entire South and then get their names cleared by President Bush. … I don’t think you’re going to see that in any other comedy this summer, which I think means the audience will have a lot of fun with ours. At least I hope they do,” Penn said.