by Nick Pinkerton
Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle
Dir. Danny Leiner, U.S., New Line
â€śThe American Problem,â€ť so-called, has undeniably been the Cannes-defining cog around which the hot-button cinema of the past two-plus years has rotated. And as every imaginable genre and director lines up to encapsulate the state of the nation for every imaginable demographic, I suppose it was only a matter of time until the minds behind Dude, Whereâ€™s My Car? fumbled their fingers onto the pulse of our troubled superpower. And so witness Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle. Striving for heights of feature-film commercial whoring not seen since the 100-minute Super Mario Brothers 3 advert that was 1989â€™s The Wizard, Harold & Kumar expands product placement into the filmâ€™s central crucible; the quotidian mission of the title/synopsis becomes a metaphorical quest for the fulfillment of the American dream. â€śThis is about achieving what our parents set out for,â€ť Indian-American Kumar (Kal Penn) tells his friend, Korean-American investment banker Harold (John Cho). To the movieâ€™s credit, it forms a logical basis for such a claim; in the context of Harold & Kumar, America is indivisible from shitfaced late-night runs for lousy 24-hour fast food. And this, it beams, is by no means a bad thing.
Our protagonists, polar-opposite roommates who relate over the weighty expectations of their immigrant parents and a shared love of wacky tobaccy, are introduced in shorthand personality-illustrating skits. Itâ€™s Friday at quitting time and passive, shy Harold is buried in a heap of sloughed-off work by his slacking cracker co-workers (â€śThose Asian guys love crunching numbersâ€ť). Drifting-but-gifted Kumar shows up in a med-school entrance interview with the Dean (the omnipresent Fred Willard), which he intentionally and flamboyant flubs. Sensitive, over-reliable Harold fawns from afar after Maria, the gorgeous girl down the hall (Paula GarcĂ©s), and harbors a fondness for John Hughes movies; he gushingly calls Sixteen Candles â€śa beautiful love story,â€ť though itâ€™s unclear if heâ€™s talking about the Long Duk Dong subplot. Smarmy Kumar expends the whole of his energy in avoiding the onset of adult responsibility, occasionally tossing Harold time-tested nuggets of free-wheeling best-bud wisdom like â€śYour whole life is pre-set,â€ť all with a liberal dose of Dennis Miller smirk. The boys are both blessed with the sort of obvious, archetypal personalities that only seem to exist in movies geared at 18-25 year-olds (or in actual 18-25 year-olds) and, as such, both are just ripe for a life-altering road tripâ„˘ to smooth out their extremes.
Cue the impetus: sitting stoned and â€śhungry as ballsâ€ť on their couch, the duo watch a White Castle commercialâ€”slow-motion landslides of crinkle-cut fries and swaying heaps of burgersâ€”through goggling, bloodshot eyes. The television's siren song of sliders sends our heroes out on the road, navigating the by-routes of New Jersey in the rapt thrall of Grade-D beef, a journey which expands to suburban Homeric proportions as itâ€™s sabotaged by bad directions, weed, and sex pit-stops, rabid woodland creatures, car theft, self-doubt, and incarceration. Harold & Kumar takes placeâ€”significantlyâ€”a river away from the prohibitive rents and ritz of Manhattan, in a homely Garden State that combines the pre-fab environment of American sprawl with a diversity thatâ€™s distinctly NYC metro; this is the Jersey where stepping off a PATH train is like walking into a U.N. meeting. Harold and Kumar form their kinships here through the melting pot of pot, as with their buildingâ€™s resident Jewish stoners (David Krumholtz and Eddie Kaye Thomas, doomed to vie for all eternity with Thomas Ian Nicholas for title of â€śmost forgettable member of the American Pie castâ€ť), or through implicit bonding over outsider status, as with a harassed convenience store owner or a wrongly-imprisoned black academic (who has two gay dads, to boot). The movie envisions inter-minority relations as a harmonious ethnic mash-up; witness Haroldâ€™s dreams of Maria, which combine the crazily lucid palette of Asian animation with the operatic iconography of a south-of-the-border western.
The obstacles to Harold and Kumarâ€™s fast-food crusade, by contrast, are almost exclusively Caucasian; the race is represented as an bizarre, idiotic, and intimidating dominant enclave, epitomized in a pack of â€śwhooâ€ť-ing, tribal-tattooed extreme sports types (who have the movieâ€™s funniest line: â€śLetâ€™s get ourselves some fucking Mountain Dew.â€ť) Other paper targets include a â€śbusiness hippieâ€ť Princeton pot dealer whoâ€™s scooped out of jail by his blue-blood mother, replete with Bryn Mawr accent, a precinct-full of dumbly swaggering, moustache-packing, racist cops, and a gross-out detour into old, weird, Americana terrain, populated by a lumbering lunk of deformity named Freakshow (Christopher Meloni, replete with loving, lingering close-ups of pustules straight from â€śRen & Stimpyâ€ť) and his little peach of a swinger wife. The sole pseudo-exception to the movieâ€™s Anglo-Saxon phobia is Neil Patrick Harris, appearing as himself, ecstasy-addled and abandoned, hitchhiking on a rural state route. Harrisâ€™s appearance depends very much on our memory of Doogie Howser, whose precocious prepubescent professionalism made him a likely role model for young, overachieving Pacific Rimmers. N.P.H. (as one patrolman affectionately calls the actor) steals Haroldâ€™s car and is spotted later swaying out of the sun-roof, piloting the vehicle no-hands, and huffing coke off of strippersâ€™ asses. Harrisâ€™s sweaty, peroxided satyr is something like the haywire mascot for the movieâ€™s ethos, which blows off the burden of expectance on first-generation Americans. â€śProdigies of the world,â€ť says Doogie, â€śParty your potential right the hell away.â€ť
Itâ€™s true that the road to lenient reviews is paved with good intentions and, that said, itâ€™s worth grimly noting how often the words â€śsweet-spiritedâ€ť have been amply applied to Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle. But I just canâ€™t look past the movieâ€™s scarcity of full-on laughs; so much of what makes or breaks these proudly puerile flicks is their ability to catch a stupid, silly groove that the audience can comfortably slump back into and ride. Despite an obligatory litany of bodily-function gags and sorry stoner surrealism, the film never hits that retardoid vibe. My litmus test for these things will always be the atmosphere I found in the packed house at a midnight, opening Friday screening of Scary Movie; the crowd seemed ready to levitate through sheer gaga, moronic bliss. But Harold & Kumarâ€™s goofball attitude seems at best affected, as in the scene where the boys (oh, dear!) get an escaped cheetah high, and at worst hand-me-down, as in the â€śhot girl overheard having violent diarrheaâ€ť vignette, lifted from the far-superior weed epic Detroit Rock City.
Harold & Kumarâ€™s chief value isnâ€™t comedic then, but itâ€™s ability to function as a cinematic ambassador of international goodwill. The film champions a goofy multi-culti young America thatâ€™s all baggy cargo pants, raging hard-ons, and amiable â€śWhereâ€™s the party?â€ť attitude, certainly a welcome counterpoint to our current â€śItâ€ť girl, Lynndie English. The movie fairly brims with love for the convenient modern USA of fast food, Home Depot, and multiplexes; early on the film seems to be laying up for an absurdist gag, riffing on the visual uniformity of our of contemporary landscape, preparing to put our heroes adrift in a confusion of identical landmarks. But then the set-up floats by unsprung, and I couldnâ€™t help feeling a little guilty for even suspecting Harold & Kumar of that capacity for cynicism. Instead the bland, cultureless architecture of our off-ramp nation comes off as a neutral backdrop upon which any and all ethnicity is equally at home, and the bland, perforated patties of White Castle fare, quite sincerely, as a shining symbol of our national bounty.
So the movie inoffensively bobbles along between wacky scenarios, lubricated with wall-to-wall music; rock is only marginally present, limited to crappy pop-punk tunes that accompany the doofy hijinks of amok preppies. Harold & Kumar confirms hip-hop as the new musical esperanto, the universal, omni-ethnic language spoken by Jay-Z and Punjabi MC, but the movieâ€™s most affecting musical moment is pure pop, as our protagonists let themselves lapse into a passionate car stereo sing-along of Wilson Phillipsâ€™ â€śHold Onâ€ť (â€śDonâ€™t you know things can change/ Thingâ€™ll go your way/ If you hold on for one more dayâ€ť). Balancing irony, cheap generational nostalgia, Wayneâ€™s World-biting, and an acknowledgement of how genuinely, transcendently powerful crap culture can be, this is where Harold & Kumarâ€™s ambitions as a half-baked statement of the American zeitgeist almost come together, coming out in praise of the collectively unifying glue of bad pop.
All said, Harold & Kumar leaves unproven the question of stupid/wacky pot-and-potty humorâ€™s capacity as vehicle for social commentary. But if the movie falls well short of Dreiser as a snapshot of America-as-it-is, it must at least be credited with exhibiting an understanding of this country thatâ€™s head-and-shoulders above the David Bowie â€śYoung Americansâ€ť montage at the end of Dogville. That, by contrast, is just plain stupid.