Sunday, 4 December 2011

From the archive: "Harold and Kumar Get the Munchies"

In Danny Leiner's new comedy Harold and Kumar Get the Munchies, Harold (John Cho) is an uptight Chinese guy stuck in a dead-end investment job. His roommate Kumar (Kal Penn) is a med student struggling to live up to the high standards expected of him by his doctor father. One Friday night, while unwinding with a joint in front of the television, they spy an advert for the American fast-food chain White Castle. Thus the quest for the perfect hamburger begins, and it will take in, in no particular order, feral woodland creatures, convenience store canoeing, a disfigured Jesus freak repairman, his very comely wife, the actor formerly known as Doogie Howser, and an escaped cheetah. Oh, and one of the leads having sex with a giant bag of marijuana.

Leiner was last responsible for the equally scattershot Dude, Where's My Car?, a ramshackle series of skits passing for a narrative. But as the target audience for either film might tell you, Harold and Kumar is, like, some conceptual shit, man: recasting Dude's lead roles with Asian actors and seeing what effect it might have. The result turns out to be a Cheech and Chong Goldberg Variations, a film whose very make-up celebrates diversity in the more forms the better. Penn and Cho certainly don't get the easy ride afforded to Seann William Scott and Ashton Kutcher in Dude, Where's My Car?; at various points in their odyssey, they're confronted by differing kinds of racism (white collar prejudice; corrupt cops; street punks who mock Kumar with wicked impersonations of Apu from The Simpsons). Released in a week where Dubya refused to answer the "did you inhale?" question for fear of influencing people either way (dude, where's my leadership?), here's a teen comedy with a very definite worldview, a film that spends its entire running time tossing such answers out. (Cue suppressed sniggers from that same target audience.)

There are the expected poo, dick and stoner jokes, but they're clear-eyed and delivered with a heart of gold. Harold expresses his fondness for Sixteen Candles, suggesting the film's innate sincerity, but Leiner's less of a square like John Hughes than he might be the new "Savage" Steve Holland, the lost 80s teen movie genius who came to directing from animation and turned out such loopy work as One Crazy Summer and Better Off Dead.... He's helped by career-making turns from his leads. There's one particular grace note on Penn's remarkably expressive face when trying not to react to his father's insistence that "Daddy's not coming on anything", though he even retains a certain charm when asking a sexually available woman whether she wants to be penetrated in one hole or two. Cho's straight-laced persona ("What's the deal with Neil Patrick Harris? Why is he so horny?") yields its own comic rewards. Elsewhere, the film offers a fun new game ("Battleshits") to study and enjoy, an extended riff on the cultural significance of Katie Holmes's nude scene in The Gift, and a silly insult to top even SpongeBob Squarepants' "Knucklehead McSpazzatron": Kumar calling Harold "Vagina McVaginastein".

(March 2005)

Harold and Kumar Get the Munchies screens tonight on five at 11.15pm.

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