At first glance, Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle looks like just another dumb stoner movie, not that different from something like Dude, Where’s My Car?. Both films even share the same director. If you look a little closer, though, you’ll see that this film is a bit smarter than it initially appears. Yes, it has the requisite jokes about bodily functions and bizarre sex acts. It has an abundance of pot smoking gags, as well as female nudity. Everything you’d expect from a dumb stoner comedy is front and center. What you don’t expect is the sly subversion of racial expectations. There’s a reason why it’s Harold and Kumar going to White Castle instead of Jim and Bob.
The heroes in these kinds of movies are always dumb white guys. In this case, the heroes are Harold (John Cho), a Korean-American investment banker, and Kumar (Kal Penn), an Indian medical student. They are bright young men. However, both of them struggle with stereotyping. The uptight Harold can’t stand up to colleagues who bully him into doing their work because “those Asians just love crunching numbers.” The more laid back Kumar, meanwhile, is expected to become a doctor – just like his father, his brother, and many other Indian-Americans. However, he doesn’t want to be a doctor simply because it’s expected of him; Kumar almost seems to enjoy sabotaging an important job interview.
As a means of rebelling – and of relieveing stress – the guys indulge in heavy marijuana smoking. One evening, as they blaze away, a commercial for White Castle restaurant comes on the TV. Harold and Kumar develop a serious case of the munchies and set out to find the nearest White Castle. This leads to a wild journey through New Jersey, where finding the burger joint is anything but easy. They encounter a runaway cheetah, have their car stolen by “Doogie Houser” star Neil Patrick Harris (playing a grotesque distortion of himself), and face off against a pack of racist morons.
Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle, like so many teen comedies these days, revels in its outrageousness. There is a sequence in a public restroom that will either have you laughing hysterically or gagging uncontrollably. Another bit – involving an auto mechanic with a disgusting skin condition – will evoke a similar response. Ten years ago, movie comedies were helplessly mired in political correctness. The industry seems to have rebounded and is now making every effort to go to the opposite extreme.
I confess that I laughed at a lot of this stuff. It may be outrageous, but it’s also funny, and that makes it forgivable. One of the funniest scenes involves Kumar having a romantic fantasy about a bag of marijuana. The sequence looks just like any man-woman romantic fantasy would, with shots of Kumar and the weed bag running along a beach, cavorting in bed, and so on. There are numerous other scenes that just as fully embrace that wacky comedic style. To cite another example, Harris ruthlessly satirizes his own squeaky-clean image by snorting cocaine off a stripper’s backside.
(To be honest, the film probably does glorify drug use. As a lifelong eschewer of drugs, I had some mild problems with that. However, that’s a personal thing; the movie still works.)
John Cho and Kal Penn are crucial to the picture’s success. You have seen Cho in American Pie, where he played “the MILF guy.” Penn was in Malibu’s Most Wanted and Van Wilder. Each actor has played his share of stereotypical roles based on ethnicity. For this film, the actors play characters who want to defy expectations. I suspect Cho and Penn know a few things about this. Both are very funny in the film, but more importantly, they create fully realized characters. You actually root for Harold and Kumar. Getting to White Castle is, for them, about more than satisfying the munchies. It’s symbolic of reaching a dream, of following through on something and being successful on their own terms.
This spirit runs underneath the entire film. Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle is smart in the way it plays with our ideas of what roles Korean- and Indian-Americans are supposed to play in our society. Throughout their adventure, the title characters face down all sorts of stereotypes. They emerge more confident in themselves and in their ability to handle prejudice. This empowering idea is woven with great subtlety into a series of poop jokes, sex jokes, and pot jokes. Maybe some people will miss it. I didn’t.
( out of four)
Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle is rated R for strong language, sexual content, drug use and some crude humor. The running time is 1 hour and 28 minutes.
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