Sunday 4 December 2011

From the archive: "Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay"

The cult of Harold and Kumar grew slowly. 2005's Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle (retitled ...Get the Munchies in the UK) was a modest box-office performer which found its true home on DVD, where its superior stoner gags, inspired pop-cultural references, and occasional bouts of T&A could best be appreciated - doubly so, if viewers happened to be high. Less tatty than those old Cheech and Chong vehicles, the film was distinguished by its acute sensitivity towards its characters' ethnicity: uptight Korean Harold (John Cho) and party Indian Kumar (Kal Penn) enjoyed the odd toke, but these were not giggling idiots, rather smart young men with a credible friendship in a world where their skin colour - still, in the 21st century - made life difficult for them. That friendship is tested again in a savvy sequel, Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay, which skilfully dips a toe into political waters and treads a useful line between ideologies; as a response to the War on Terror, it also manages many more laughs than Rendition. We pick up where the first movie left off, with the boys heading to Amsterdam to retrieve Harold's beloved neighbour (Paula Garces). Yet after a spliffing Kumar causes a scene in an aeroplane toilet - and his panicked fellow flyers mishear his protestations of "bong" as "bomb" - they're hauled off by Homeland Security, fitted with bright orange jumpsuits, and sequestered in the prison of the title. Comedy ensues.

Despite the adults-only 18 certificate, it strikes me that this is perhaps the most good-natured of franchises currently doing the rounds. Sketchiness and a lack of political sophistication in its representation of Guantanamo itself - home, in this incarnation, to four prisoners, two guards and a goat - seem like minor niggles in a script determined to overturn racial stereotypes at every turn. The leads have an encounter with a black Mr. White, who makes unexpected use of a tyre iron; Kumar is forced to concede "the Klan really knew how to party"; and writers-turned-directors Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg make explicit (in every sense) their philosophy by giving a redneck hunter the following speech/declaration of insight: "Raelene and I are siblings. Sometimes, we get it on. That doesn't mean you can judge us." That tolerance is extended to a (surprisingly) sympathetic appearance from America's outgoing Commander-in-Chief, with whom Harold and Kumar come to share common ground, and a fat one.

The sequel lacks a moment as iconic as the first film's Wilson-Phillips singalong, or a gag as funny as the original's Katie Holmes riff (David Krumholtz and Eddie Kaye Thomas, valuable support on the road to White Castle, are here somewhat underused), and it misses a trick in failing to come up with the Prison Break reference the set-up was crying out for, but Cho's gift for mixing politesse with consternation comes into its own in Harold's dealings with the authorities, and both leads make you believe in their sincerity, which matters come the happy endings, and makes the excesses (bottomless parties, toilet humour, the return of Neil Patrick Harris, again quite brilliant as a Hollywood a-hole) not only bearable, but somehow even charming. It also contains my favourite line of the year to date, nonsensically profane out of context, but hilarious in the scene in which it features, and in my head ever since: Kumar's sudden, unpunctuated defence of his country to an incarcerated terrorist: "FUCK YOU DOUGHNUTS ARE AWESOME!" Shock and awesome, and then some.

(May 2008)

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