Film Reviews: Wednesday, July 28 2004
John Cho and Kal Penn are about to discover a stowaway on their trip as ‘Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle.’
Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle
Starring John Cho and Kal Penn. Directed by Danny Leiner. Written by Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg. Rated R.
Asian-Style Burgers

Supersized laughs are served up when Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle.


There’s blatant product placement in movies, and then there’s Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, which puts the product name in the title, makes the pursuit of said product the object of the plot, and has several characters at various points in the film extol the unique qualities and tastiness of those little square hamburgers. A 90-minute White Castle infomercial wouldn’t have been nearly as effective a piece of advertising as this movie. The thing is, it’s so effective because the movie is actually very funny and entertaining. In fact, it’s one of the best comedies Hollywood has put out all year. It’s pitched squarely at the stoner crowd, but you’ll laugh even if you’re not high, which may be the highest recommendation of all.

The movie begins with Korean-American junior investment banker Harold Lee (John Cho) and Indian-American unemployed slacker Kumar Patel (Kal Penn), two postcollegiate roommates and best friends. They’re spending an ordinary Friday evening at home in Hoboken, N.J. watching tv and smoking weed when they suddenly start jonesing for those famous burgers. Their attempt to drive to the nearest White Castle, 45 minutes away in Cherry Hill, becomes a surreal odyssey filled with detours and obstacles, including an enraged raccoon, a redneck auto mechanic with boils all over his face (an unrecognizable Chris Meloni), a live cheetah escaped from the zoo, and former Doogie Howser, M.D. star Neil Patrick Harris, gleefully trashing his own image by playing himself as an Ecstasy-crazed party monster who drives off in Harold’s car.

The director here is Danny Leiner of Dude, Where’s My Car? infamy. At first glance, this movie seems to share that movie’s episodic non-structure. However, screenwriters Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg have come up with much better material. Their script is brimming with all manner of filthy humor, and though some of the gags misfire (like the one with the two sexy English girls who turn out to have severe digestive problems), many others hit the target. They also construct the farce so that things that happen in earlier scenes pay off later on — a bag of pot the size of a throw pillow changes hands several times, with different consequences for each of its successive owners. As a result, the movie’s much tighter than it appears.

The film also has the advantage of being on virgin territory. After all, many comedies have made hay out of busting African-American stereotypes, but far fewer have devoted themselves to dismantling Asian ones. Harold’s and Kumar’s ethnicities are more than just an excuse for easy jokes at the expense of racists. It’s ingrained in their hang-ups and neuroses. Kumar has been diligently washing out of his medical school interviews because he’s afraid of fulfilling a stereotype. These are fully realized characters, and as such they have much more traction than Ron Burgundy and his pals.

The two actors go at these parts like starving men at a buffet table, no doubt fired by the scarcity of Asian-American roles in Hollywood films. Cho proves himself an extremely capable straight man, reminiscent of the younger Matthew Broderick, and even shows some promise as a romantic part in the scenes between Harold and the hot Latina chick who lives in his building (Paula Garcès). Still, in movies like these, the wilder half of the duo tends to get the better of things. The real spark here is Penn, whose impulsive hotheadedness plays very well off his co-star. He does more than adequate penance for his part in National Lampoon’s Van Wilder. The two actors have such a smooth partnership that it could be explored in a sequel — Harold and Kumar Tour the Finest Restaurants in Europe, perhaps.

But this movie’s subversive in ways that go beyond skin color. Many Hollywood comedies, including Dude, Where’s My Car?, have pandered to the idiots in the audience by celebrating the idiocy of its main characters. In this movie, the idiots are the enemy, personified by some overzealous cops and some mindless skateboard punks who pop up at regular intervals to sling racial insults at our heroes. Harold and Kumar finally get payback on the latter in a particularly satisfying scene that also leads into the movie’s single funniest bit, which revolves around a rendition of Wilson Phillips’ “Hold On.” (Explaining how it leads into that would only kill the joke.) A movie about two fundamentally smart guys dealing with other people’s stupidity is a rare bird in Hollywood, and that quality gives this low-profile slacker comedy a delightful and totally unexpected kick. And even if you’re just in it to see these clowns hunt down a good hamburger, you’ll walk away from this movie with a nice junk-food buzz. l

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