Made for only $9 million, and released in the summer of 2004 the week after The Bourne Supremacy, as rib-nudging counter-programming to the seriousness of both The Manchurian Candidate and M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village, New Line’s raunchy, pot-driven teen comedy Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle may be one of the more simultaneously unlikely and inspired movies to spawn a spin-off in the past decade-plus.
After courting high school and college kids in coded fashion (“Fast food, high times” was the poster’s tagline), the movie grossed a respectable $18 million in theaters. But it became a true sensation on DVD, where a cultish following developed around the wild hijinks of the two namesake New Jersey pals (John Cho and Kal Penn) as they attempted to sate a case of the munchies, and in the process crossed paths with both a cheetah and the erstwhile Doogie Howser, M.D. — Neil Patrick Harris, playing an obscenity-spouting, drugged-up, hyper-masculinized version of himself.
Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay ups the ante even further. Picking up right at the conclusion of the first movie, the guys head to Amsterdam to track down Harold’s crush, Maria (Paula Garcés). En route, they bump into Kumar’s former girlfriend Vanessa (One Tree Hill‘s Danneel Harris), now engaged. After Kumar’s smokeless, battery-operated bong is mistaken for a bomb, though, he and Harold are assumed to be terrorists, and shipped off to Guantanamo Bay. Harsh forms of subjugation that even former Justice Department official John Yoo couldn’t have crafted a loophole memorandum around seemingly await the pair, but they escape, and make their way back to the States.
On the lam, they make their way west to Texas. The intent is to seek help from Vanessa’s fiancé, and make good on his professional connections; Kumar has the secret intention, though, of busting up their marriage. It’s not long before a chance reunion with Neil Patrick Harris occurs. Meanwhile, the entire time, federal agent Ron Fox (Rob Corddry, above right, playing one of the most brazenly racist film characters in recent memory) is feverishly hunting down Harold and Kumar. He finally catches them, but they again escape his grasp, and end up meeting with the president, and helping him work through some daddy issues.
The writers of the first movie, Hayden Schlossberg and Jon Hurwitz, make their joint (get it?) directorial debut here, and improve upon the original in virtually every way. Naturally, things are driven by some of the same coarse, rapid-fire patter (i.e., “Shotgun anus!”), and certain other structural similarities remain; in both movies the guys have a moment with nature, and come across a strange married couple living in seclusion. And then there’s Neil Patrick Harris, who is an integral, if zonked part of the films’ careening, out-of-left-field charm.
Stoner flicks of course have a rich screen history all their own, from Dude, Where’s My Car?, How High and Half Baked to of course just about anything starring Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong. But that’s just a small part of the world of Harold and Kumar — the spark to their fire. While weed was a big part of the comic misunderstandings that fueled the plot of the first movie, and works in similar fashion here as well, the fact is that both films operate on a higher plane than an awful lot of sludgy spliff flicks.
The drugs — and in particular Kumar’s voracious appetite — are a means to an end. They’re what fuels the outrageousness of the scenarios (a “bottomless party” in Miami, Harris branding a prostitute, sky-diving to safety over Crawford, Texas), and otherwise allows Schlossberg and Hurwitz to tackle sacred cows and semi-topical socio-political humor. The relationship at the core of both movies is essentially a riff on The Odd Couple, with Kumar living sloppily and in the moment, and Harold fretting about consequences.
The nerviness of the film is impressive. There’s a KKK beer party in the woods, and Corddry’s agent attempts to wheedle a confession out of an African-American by opening up a can of grape soda and pouring it out on the ground; the ethnicity of its leads gives its makers some extra leeway, no doubt. But Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay mostly works not because of its baser instincts (of which there is plenty of indulgence), but because it’s well cast, wildly written and full of good, old-fashioned comedic friction. That’s a formula for success, no matter the age, ethnicity or drug intake level of your protagonists. (New Line, R, 100 minutes)