ARTS

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April 24, 2008

Harold and Kumar return, still stoned and savvy

[img id="80528" align="alignleft"] With nothing but Gregg Araki’s surprisingly bleak Smiley Face to fill the stoner-movie void of late, the return of Harold (John Cho) and Kumar (Kal Penn) to the big screen is especially welcome. Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay is every bit as entertaining, absurd, and subversively witty as 2004’s Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle—even without the help of a certain mind-altering substance. In a true rarity among sequels, it improves upon the original, employing all the elements that made its predecessor a success and amplifying them to hilarious effect.

Anthropomorphic big bag of weed? Check. This time, rather than marrying it, Kumar fantasizes a bedroom encounter with the bag that has to be seen to be believed. Lampooning of blatant displays of racism? Check. The boys encounter racial profiling at an airport, infiltrate a Klan meeting, and generally get mistaken for every non-Caucasian ethnicity possible. Neil Patrick Harris? Of course. The screenwriters mercifully disregarded Harris’s real-life acknowledgment of his homosexuality, leaving the character as heterosexually horny as ever. If anyone can dispel the silly notion that audiences won’t accept gay actors in straight roles, it could be him.

The plot, such as it is, picks up right where the first movie left off, with the guys jetting off to Amsterdam so Harold can profess his love to the beautiful Maria (Paula Garcés). The opening sequence cleverly contrasts the duo’s personalities, as Harold irons his shirts before folding them neatly in his suitcase and Kumar takes a mid-packing masturbation break. In the airport, they encounter Kumar’s old flame, Vanessa (Lindsay Lohan look-alike Danneel Harris) and learn she is engaged to the über-preppy Colton (Eric Winter). But before you can say “douche bag”—which Kumar does, many times—their “smokeless bong” gets mistaken for a weapon of mass destruction, and the guys find themselves locked up in the infamous Cuban detention center.

Here the film walks a fine line between homophobia and trenchant social commentary. The prison scenes seem mildly homophobic because, while no one “drops the soap,” fellating a guard named “Big Bob” is treated as a fate only slightly preferable to death. However, the guards are subject to Kumar’s scathing commentary; he marvels at how they can identify as heterosexual while denouncing the prisoners coerced into giving them sexual favors as “queer.” Since the real-life abuse at Guantanamo had a sexual undercurrent, Kumar’s point is particularly relevant. It’s a fine line between homophobia and homoeroticism, but Harold and Kumar tread it well.

The bulk of the film, of course, is devoted to the friends trying to get to Amsterdam or back to their home state of New Jersey, whichever comes first. It doesn’t give anything away to say that they break out of Guantanamo shortly after the opening credits, making the title somewhat misleading. It’s a good thing the rest of their journey doesn’t disappoint.

One inspired sequence finds Harold and Kumar on the opposite end of racial profiling. It’s a sly reminder that, in our multicultural world, racism can take on many subtle forms. Better yet, they indict the audience in their fear. We are clearly meant to panic as large African-American men approach their car carrying tire jacks. Menacing music looms in the background; the street lamps cast an eerie glow on every person’s face. It isn’t until Harold and Kumar are far away that we learn the men simply wanted to help the stranded travelers. Does our failure to recognize their generosity make us racist? If the men were of a different race, would we have come to a different conclusion? And what about the scary music playing on the soundtrack?

It isn’t often that comedies raise such provocative questions. Roger Ebert writes of the 2003 comedy Pieces of April: “[The director] has a confused idea that it would be funny to play on negative associations about young black men, to make it a joke when we find out how nice Bobby [a young black man] is. Not funny.” Harold & Kumar employs this same technique, but with self-awareness, so that the directors actually make a statement about the audience’s reaction.

Harold & Kumar goes too far when it makes fun of a rural Alabamian couple, who are unfunny and incestuous; apparently, Southerners are one of the few groups it is still acceptable to mock. But all is forgiven by the time the boys smoke a joint with George W. Bush (James Adomian), who may not look much like the president, but has mastered his mannerisms and vocal inflections. Kumar even gets to recite a love poem about the square root of three, which will delight many a nerd at the U of C.

The movie even approaches—dare I say it?—a few moments of genuine emotion, as the nature of Harold and Kumar’s unique friendship is explored, complete with a priceless flashback to their college days in the ’80s. Then, Kumar vows to set off on a path to maturity, though he recognizes that major change doesn’t happen overnight. Kumar’s love interest, Danneel Harris’s luminescent Vanessa is a welcome addition to the series, though a part of me can’t help wishing Lindsay Lohan would get her act together so she may take over the role. Here’s hoping this isn’t the last outing for this gut-busting, stereotype-busting, new-millennial Cheech and Chong.