‘Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle’ is NOT a typical stoner film

John Cho and Kal Penn get high in 'Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle'
John Cho and Kal Penn get high in ‘Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle’

On the surface Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle is a typical stoner film. On Friday night two twenty-something guys smoke themselves into a wicked case of the munchies, and decide that the only solution is to scarf down as many burgers and fries as it takes to appease their hunger. The catch? The burgers have to be from White Castle, a fast food chain famous for teeny tiny burgers called sliders. Luckily there’s one not far from their New Jersey apartment. Or, there used to be . . .

And so their quest begins. It unfolds during an intermittent dark and stormy night, during which they joust with a gang of skinhead extreme skateboarders, a rampaging raccoon, a racist cop, Kumar’s disapproving father, Harold’s bullying co-workers, a backwoods boil-covered bible-thumping psycho mechanic who invites them to sleep with his gorgeous young wife, an anal narc, a set of beautiful English party girls seized with an unfortunate case of food poisoning, an escaped cheetah and Doogie Howser.

Like The Simpsons, if you want to watch it on nothing but the surface level, you won’t be disappointed. It’s laugh out loud funny. But watch out, because the beauty of pop culture at its most (often unintentionally) innovative is that it can slip in real thoughts and real ideas, while you’re busy cracking up at the two babes playing a rousing game of “battle shits”.

This is a gross out comedy with a twist. This odd couple is smart. No Jeff Spicoli’s here. Forget Wayne and Garth. On the road, Harold and Kumar owe more to Hope and Crosby than Bill and Ted. But wait, there’s more. Harold and Kumar, regardless the rapidly escalating, gloriously over the top situations they find themselves in, are real people. And even more unorthodox, they are friends. Not generic testosterone driven buds, pals or bros. They aren’t even afraid that, if they see each other naked, or sit close together on the couch, it “Means Something”.

The film isn’t homoerotic. It’s something way slyer and far more deceptively subversive: it isn’t homophobic. It is peppered with situations and lines that, stereotypically, call for Harold or Kumar to react in the same way men in movies react when they have to change a baby’s diaper. With a loud ewww, and the desire to get away as fast as possible. Here instead they are secure enough in their sexuality — even if they aren’t getting any — that not only aren’t they threatened, they don’t see the idea of being gay as horrific. It’s a choice, it’s just not their choice. When a white supremacist-in-training calls Harold a “catcher,” he frowns, turns to Kumar and says, “Why do I have to be the catcher?” What he’s asking is, “Do I seem like a wimp?”, completely sidestepping what, in almost any other movie, would be fighting words. There is something stealthily revolutionary, and genuinely endearing, in this.

Kal Penn (right) and John Cho star in 'Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle'
Kal Penn (right) and John Cho star in ‘Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle’

John Cho is utterly believable as Harold, an uptight Korean-American investment banker who mistakenly thinks that the way to gain acceptance in American culture is to follow all the rules without complaint. His face continually registers his internal battle between disapproval and longing. Even at the end, when he finally cuts loose in a stolen truck, he won’t put petal to the metal to out run the cops until Kumar buckles up.

Kumar, on the other hand, could care less. It isn’t that he’s opposed to rules per se, just the ones that make no sense — and there are so many. Like having to wait for the green light to cross a deserted country road at two a.m. Kal Penn gives Kumar a comfortable air of self-confidence that is completely devoid of arrogance, allowing him to explain the most far-fetched scenarios with such total sincerity that you almost believe him. It doesn’t hurt that Penn has the charisma of a star, and that together he and Cho have far more chemistry than many of the pairings in recent romantic comedies — JLo and Ralph Fiennes come to mind, not to mention Pierce Brosnan and Julianne Moore.

The supporting players take delight in small roles, each of which defines its moment and thus becomes stand alone. Fred Ward as a medical school dean is hilariously outraged by Kumar’s refreshingly blunt admission that even though he has perfect MCAT scores he has no desire to be a doctor. Anthony Anderson is disturbingly earnest as a Burger Shack employee who may make you think twice when biting into your next oozing fast food burger. Bobby Lee does a quick turn as a button down geek who shocks Harold and Kumar when he comes unbuttoned in a scene that underscores the film’s theme — stereotyping isn’t something that we only do to others, we do it to ourselves. And as Bobby Lee’s character, Kenneth Park proves, most of the time, we are wrong. Finally, as Neil Patrick Harris, Neil Patrick Harris is sublime. Doogie has a sense of humor. Who knew?

The DVD also includes a conversation between Bobby Lee, Kal Penn and John Cho that’s entertaining although not enlightening. Far more interesting is the short, “The Art of the Fart,” which illustrates that bathroom humor is not nearly as easy as it seems. Given breakthroughs in manufactured sound — and who hasn’t seen old footage of coconut shells being clapped together to create the sound of thundering hooves? — you’d think that it would be a cinch to whip up a good fart via a synthesizer. Apparently not. In this case, it took a burly sound engineer dressed in granny-style drag infiltrating a public restroom in Arizona, trying, not always successfully, to secretly snake a boom mike beneath the walls of a stall while it’s in use.

But by far the most interesting extras on the DVD are two commentaries, one with director Danny Leiner, as well as Cho and Penn; and the other by the screenwriters, John Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg. The two writers describe what they were going for in each scene, how it was written, what they were thinking as it was filmed and a million little intriguing details that make you feel as if you were there. However, watching them back-to-back is at times a bit of a Rashomon experience, especially when each attributes the creation of a particular line to a different person. It’s definitely worth the price of admission.

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