Gitmo Injustices Get Satirical Treatment From Harold & Kumar

Ask anybody under twenty-five what he/she thought of the 2004 stoner comedy Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, and he/she will almost certainly say, with intense feeling, "It was huh-LARE-ious." There's going to be a similar reaction to the sequel, Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay. Everybody who liked the first one, or heard that the first one was huh-LARE-ious, is going to see the second one, and will likely find it to be funny as hell too.

Still, since we're here, let's review the thing.

Directed by the screenwriters who also wrote White Castle, Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg, Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay picks up right where the first film left off, with our heroes still feeling the effects of their epic adventures scoring White Castle burgers to assuage the pangs of pot-induced munchies. Their hair-raising trek through the wilds of New Jersey has marked these young men in very different ways. Harold (John Cho), an uptight investment banking drone, is taking a blissful shower and daydreaming of his inamorata Maria (Paula Garces), whom he'd finally kissed at the end of that first traumatic odyssey. His friend Kumar (Kal Penn), a hedonistic pre-med student, is dealing with a savage case of indigestion from eating all those White Castle "sliders." And there you have the two poles of the franchise coming together in the very first scene. Sweet clichd young love and explosive diarrhea. Presumably we've all been there.

This dynamic duo is about to fly to Amsterdam in romantic pursuit of Maria and the legendary legal weed available there. But as you can tell by that wonderful title that can't be repeated too often, Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay, something goes wrong. A series of air travel disasters that seem like the stuff of our culture's collective post-9/11 nightmares put the boys at serious odds with America's beefed-up Homeland Security forces, and off they go to Gitmo where a macho pinhead Fed (Rob Corddry, former Daily Show fave) is determined to nail them as terrorists.

I viewed these early scenes in a spirit of gentle approval. All the kids love Harold and Kumar, and I like to see the young folks happy. I also like to see the young folks embracing proper, traditional young folk values like the commitment to recreational drug use and new experiences and raw language and irreverence toward authority. I worry sometimes about how many young Americans seem to be moving away from these wholesome pursuits. They get religion, they stay at home with their parents, they take abstinence pledges, they don't do drugs, they don't drink, they don't rebel or express their fledging individuality -- they purse their lips and Just Say No a lot. They're like stereotypical middle-aged people used to be: weird, repressed, judgmental, xenophobic. No fun at all.

These Harold & Kumar movies seem to be offered up as an antidote to that trend. There's so much about them that's in the right camp. Hordes of film reviewers have already marveled at the H & K films' nonchalance in dealing with race and ethnicity. Our heroes just happen to be a Korean-American and an Indian-American, and they deal with the obnoxious stereotyping they encounter all over the place in refreshing ways, including paying no attention to it at all -- they've got more important things on their minds, like trying to score pot -- and exhibiting a kind of impatience with it that's actually sort of urbane. Overcoming stupid prejudices through shared enjoyment of the basic pleasures of life, which seems to be the H & K philosophy -- that seems like a good thing. Mocking the dire craziness of the current administration and its policies, that seems like an excellent thing. In short, I'd like to like this film a lot better than I do. So why don't I, in spite of my basic approval of good clean fun for the young folks?

Well, Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay isn't an accomplished film by any aesthetic standards, but then nobody goes to see a Harold & Kumar film for beautiful shot compositions. (Re-screen the sublime Napoleon Dynamite for that kind of ambition.) The sequel's slicker than the first one, but again, it doesn't really matter. Episodic rambling, meat-cleaver editing, terrible special effects, they're all part of the experience of stoner comedies that work best when the audience is also stoned. There are going to be parts that are funny-like the encounters with Neil Patrick Harris playing a deranged druggy horndog version of "Neil Patrick Harris" -- and parts that are filler. The gross-out parts are very gross, and keep getting grosser as the "creative team" tries to top itself. But it isn't that.

No, I think it's the main female characters and the actresses playing them that ruin it for me. The other curse of Eve, I swear, is the way we're represented in movies. Every other character in the H & K films gets thrown into the mix in a ruthless equalizing process revealing all human flaws: skin pustules, weak chins, big jaws, crossed eyes, weird tics, bizarre speech patterns, disgusting personal habits-everybody's highly individualized and appalling. H & K movies are Equal Opportunity Offenders. But the lead women are those terribly bland pretty ones Hollywood mass-produces, tottering around in heels. Even Kumar's true love Vanessa (Danneel Harris) who's shown in flashback turning him on to marijuana and sex, is a standard issue starlet. Her individuality is signaled by just slightly narrower eyes than the usual Barbie, and maybe a voice pitched a bit lower. That's it. In long shots you can't tell her apart from Harold's flame, Maria.

And I know, I know, the target audience for these films is teenage guys, and therefore there have to be pretty starlets tottering around in heels. But it's discouraging. In a movie franchise that's supposedly kicking over old biases by representing pretty much all of humanity as simultaneously repulsive and endearing, there shouldn't be this squeamishness about women. And don't bother mentioning the coed flatulence contest in White Castle, because I realize there are plenty of perfectly nauseating portrayals of women in minor roles. There's a bordello scene in Guantanamo Bay featuring 60-double-D freak Tits Hemmingway (Echo Valley) that's enough to give one nightmares.

My main objection boils down to this: if the filmmakers set up an anything-goes policy of outraging all notions of human dignity, they're obligated to live up to it without respecting age, race, creed, class, nationality-or gender. There can't be any prissy exceptionalism. There are rules, Dude.

Take the bottomless nude scene, which is sure to be the topic of much popular discussion. In their journey from Cuba to Texas to try to clear themselves of charges of terrorism, Harold and Kumar show up at a Miami mansion where their old friend Raza (Amir Talai) is hosting a lively soiree with a naked-from-the-waist-down rule that's strictly enforced. The awed heroes walk among scores of interchangeably good-looking women all standing around, holding model-poses, wearing tops and heels and nothing else. Every one of them is artfully pruned and manicured and fake-tanned and blemish-free and ready for their close-ups. Then you get to the male nudity at last. The gnome-like host rises out of the Jacuzzi sporting such a grotesque black forest of pubic hair it almost serves as a loincloth. Then, when Harold and Kumar finally drop their trousers, the film cuts primly to an above-the-waist shot. This whole sequence, I need hardly say, is a tragic cop-out.

However, it may be that screenwriter Diablo Cody is already on the case. She answered Judd Apatow's boy-centric vision, Superbad, with girl-centric Juno. Possibly her script for the upcoming comedy-horror film Jennifer's Body will turn out to be a worthy rebuttal to the Harold & Kumar franchise.


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