By Marianna Martin
Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay
Dir. John Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg, U.S., New Line Cinema
Dude, Harold and Kumar are back in a new movie, but I gotta warn you: it’s a major buzzkill if you’re queer or a woman.
The action of Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay picks up mere minutes after the end of Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, but in that brief period of time all of the anarchic energy seems to have seeped out of the franchise, perhaps down the drain of the shower where Harold (John Cho) is trying—and failing—to fantasize about his fashion model neighbor, Maria (Paula Garces). But more about Harold’s failure to launch later, because it’s quickly interrupted by a noisy shit gag. Potty humor isn’t new to the H&K franchise, but it’s a dispiriting way to set things off for the sequel to a movie that showed that tasteless comedies don’t necessarily have to be brainless as well.
Though the first H&K installment broke new and provocative ground in 2004—another election year—by inviting minorities into raunchfest roles previously open only to slacker white kids, the sequel, though taking a more daring political stance in the title, loses much of that ground. If the comedic formula of the original was to set up a racial generalization, then bust it wide open, rinse and repeat (all the while slyly suggesting that people could simultaneously be true to some stereotypes while defying others), the sequel has a far more mechanical and unfortunate approach: Set up a stereotype, refute it, reaffirm it, and then throw in a gag at the expense of women or gays to distract from the discomfort of the reaffirmation. If H&K intimated a message of assimilation and inclusiveness for all in the first film, then the second film is a stern reminder that the invitation really only applies to heterosexual men.
What’s going on in the sequel beyond uneasy jokes about gays and scads of undressed, aimlessly displayed female flesh? After impulsively attempting to follow Maria to Amsterdam, so that Harold can tell her how he feels about her, Harold and Kumar (Kal Penn) find their plans derailed when Kumar’s bong is mistaken for a bomb on the flight. A racist, clueless Homeland Security official (Rob Corddry, doing his best with what little he’s given) sends Harold and Kumar to Guantanamo Bay, where they achieve the escape promised in the title within a few minutes of run time, traveling back to the U.S. on a raft of Cuban refugees. Once ashore in Miami, they plan to travel to Texas, where an old acquaintance with connections (and a future in the Republican Party) can help clear their names. The complication? He’s also marrying Kumar’s ex in a couple days. Cue a road trip; the return of a shroom-eating, maniacal Neil Patrick Harris; a series of gross-out gags and racial misunderstandings; and what should have been an easy formula for pushing a liberal agenda in a fun, silly form, but with laughs less stomach-churning than those in Fahrenheit 9/11.
Unfortunately, the political daring of the film is all frontloaded in the title, as well as one brief moment when Kumar declares to Harold after being hassled by a TSA agent that “This is America” and thus he doesn’t have to “shut up.” The right to make a comedy of political protest is thus established and almost immediately wasted—every baby step towards biting satire is immediately followed by two steps back; it’s a movie that seems divided and deeply uncomfortable with itself. Harold and Kumar’s deployment to Guantanamo may be an outrage, but soon enough we meet some real terrorists in the next cell, reassuring us that not everyone there has been wrongfully imprisoned: with this sampling of inmates, it’s easy to conclude that our heroes seem to be the rare exceptions to the rule. It’s a sad retreat, and the movie never regains its satirical edge. Later, when the boys smoke some reefer with Dubya in his macho Texas clubhouse, he’s also portrayed as a simple slacker with daddy issues, who’s only done wrong because he’s under his father’s thumb. The approximation of Bush as a simpering slacker—H&K have botched many things in their lives but hold no candle to 4,000 U.S. soldiers dead in Iraq, a shattered economy, Katrina, etc.—is a pathetic, apolitical cop-out. The idea of the precise horror of the Bush presidency as a frat-party film gone horribly wrong—in which the American people have to shrug off one devastating “oopsie” after another or risk having their patriotism questioned: “Animal House meets The Twilight Zone”— is amusing, but to have the President redeemed as an irresponsible goodhearted innocent, via one smoking session, is insulting to the audience and a cowardly move on the part of the filmmakers.
The only thing treated with more discomfort than political satire in this film is the existence of those rare individuals who are not straight men. Though it’s not surprising in a comedy of this genre, the girls have nothing to do other than be stared at. A “bottomless” swimsuit party hosted by Harold and Kumar’s friend Raza puts acres of waxed female groin on display, and though the target of the joke was evidently supposed to be the cheery debauchery in which their Arab friend gets to wallow in Miami, I couldn’t help but wonder if it’s more oppressive for a society to cover women from head to toe or to leave their genitalia baldly on view. (In either case, the women clearly lose.) If we can dismiss those women as sight gags, we immediately run into another problem with Kumar’s ex, Vanessa (Daneel Harris), who, though presented in flashback as a mischievous force and viable comic foil who introduced Kumar to weed in the first place, seems in the present helplessly tugged between her rival suitors and incapable of choosing either without some silly deus ex machina that permits her to stay utterly passive. There’s no hint of why she would want to marry Colton (Eric Winter), who is stifling her personality (to the extent that she has one), nor why she left Kumar, nor why she returns to him. It would have broken new ground to allow a girl into the club as full co-conspirator, but that’s further than this film is willing to go.
Yet Vanessa lucks out by mostly being ignored, at least in comparison to Guantanamo Bay’s treatment of gays. Films portraying a largely homosocial universe are no strangers to the use of humor to draw boundaries between homosocial and homosexual interactions, but this film seems almost hysterically anxious to ensure no such confusion is possible for the audience. Since we are so frantically sold that this is a “buddy film” devoid of sexual tension (H&K won’t even touch the old comedic standby of the “two straight guy friends whose relationship is reminiscent of a really terrible marriage—only they don’t see it” à la Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon), I started to notice something in John Cho’s performance suggesting Harold as a deep closet case. Harold, clearly trying very hard to accommodate himself into his social context, would probably be rejected by Kumar—who masturbates to a magazine unambiguously titled “Vagina”— if tinged with any hint of queerness. (There’s an especially jarring moment in a flashback of Kumar and his college ex making out in the library stacks stopping an apparently aghast goth Harold in his tracks as he stumbles upon it—there’s a startling sadness in Cho’s eyes, not disgust, and it’s hard to reconcile with the surface narrative.) Yet that might be too sophisticated a move for a film so blinkered in its homophobia that Neil Patrick Harris, playing “himself” as demented hedonist, must still tell tales of lost hetero love, and loudly insist on visiting a whorehouse. (I kept waiting in vain for the reveal where Harold or Kumar asks Harris, who came out of the closet in between the release of the first and second films, “Wait, aren’t you gay?” much like they exclaimed, “Wait, are you Neil Patrick Harris?” in a shock of recognition in White Castle).
Where the original was cheeky and provocative, the sequel is dimmed and wary. There is a limited perverse pleasure to be had here, watching competing and incompatible impulses clashing— not surprisingly there were two directors at work (John Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg) who perhaps were not on the same page. Harold and Kumar themselves have developed unevenly since the first go-round, the former evincing an outsider’s mournfulness (or perhaps a personal secret), the later jubilantly throwing in his lot with the path of least resistance (he readily accepts Bush as a fellow toker and even gets into the party mood at a kegger thrown by the KKK). Kumar seems to be embracing the irresponsibility and shallowness he deems his American birthright, just as Harold appears to chafe anew under the dire political and personal situations he finds himself thrust into. What started out as a clash of personalities now feels more like a clash of ideologies—this could have been more fruitfully explored by a more competent production, but that boat has long sailed. Penn and Cho are both talented and photogenic (Penn’s career especially seems to be ascendant these days, with a regular gig on House, where his character is much like Kumar, had he decided to go to medical school), but it would take a lot to get me back into the theater for another H&K installment.