Review by Dustin Putman
2½ stars out of 4
"Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle" is low-brow, profane, and undeniably
irrelevant, but any comedy that finds a way to sneak in obscure jokes
about Katie Holmes' nude scene in 2000's "The Gift" and the infectious
beats of Wilson Phillips' 1990 pop hit, "Hold On," is far from stupid.
This comes all the more as a surprise because of its superficial similarities
to director Danny Leiner's last film, "Dude, Where's My Car?," which
was likewise about two stoner friends on the search for something.
That 2000 effort was more frequently moronic than funny, and its incessantly
nonsensical, thoroughly dull subplot about aliens in the second half
sunk whatever charm it might have otherwise had. By comparison, "Harold
and Kumar Go to White Castle" also veers all over the map, a series
of sketches more than a tightly strewn plot, but its raunchy R-rated
source o f comedy is of a richer and more fearless variety, and its
two lead characters based squarely within the plains of reality.
Harold (John Cho) and Kumar (Kal Penn) are 22-year-old best friends
just out of college trying to make it in the dreaded "real world."
While Harold is a responsible investment banker, he is utterly bored
by his job and used as an easy scapegoat so the rest of his coworkers
can slack off. Kumar, meanwhile, has a chance to study at a top medical
school, but his half-hearted efforts are little more than a means
to satisfying his doctor father. With the weekend upon them, the uptight
Harold and randy Kumar get together, smoke a bowl, and find themselves
with a mouth-watering craving for White Castle hamburgers. With no
White Castle in their New Jersey town, the twosome innocently head
off into the night to reach the closest one in Cherry Hill. Their
journey, to put it mildly, ends up becoming far more arduous and adventure-filled
than either could have expected.
At first glance, "Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle" appears to
be a dim-witted, trite waste of film stock, something of a distaff
"Cheech and Chong" remake, but first-time screenwriters Jon Hurwitz
and Hayden Schlossberg cheerfully skewer expectations. When the pals
find themselves stuck in a bathroom stall surrounded on both sides
by young women with explosive bowel movements, the film puts its own
fresh spin on a desperate, time-worn gag that was last seen in "White
Chicks." When Harold and Kumar hitch a ride with a scary tow-truck
driver littered with puss-filled boils on his face and are taken back
to his house, the sexually comic outcome defies the predictable norm
of such a situation. And when the pair pick up former "Doogie Howser"
star Neil Patrick Harris (having grand fun at playing himself), tripping
on Ecstasy and horny as all get-up, the way in which director Danny
Leiner handles this kooky plot turn borders on virtuoso. Throw in
an escaped cheetah who gets high and takes Harold and Kumar for a
reckless ride on its back; a delirious dream sequence that replaces
a human wife for Kumar with a super-sized bag of weed; and a wrongfully
imprisoned, brainy black man (Gary Anthony Williams) who has come
to terms with his fate as a constant victim of racism, and what one
has at the end is a thin little comedy that is funnier and more savvy than most.
In a gimmick that pays off, two bright actors usually stuck playing
stereotypical supporting parts—Korean-American John Cho (best known
as the "MILF" guy from 1999's "American Pie," 2001's "American Pie
2," and 2003's "American Wedding") and Indian-American Kal Penn (best
known as Ryan Reynold's foreign exchange student sidekick in 2002's
"National Lampoon's Van Wilder")—have taken over the lead roles of
Harold and Kumar. Cho and Penn are a venerably offbeat team, wholly
winning and ideal comic performers, and they bring a little extra
to their roles by making Harold and Kumar smart, nice, real guys who
simply want to have a little fun.
In a more subtle stunt that pays off, Reynolds and Eddie Kaye Thomas—the
white male leads of "Van Wilder" and the "American Pie" trilogy—have
been downgraded to supporting parts, with other memorable cameos coming
from Jamie Kennedy (2003's "Malibu's Most Wanted"), Ethan Embry (2003's
"Timeline"), Anthony Anderson (2004's "My Baby's Daddy"), and Fred
Willard (better-used in a single scene than he was in his larger,
wasted part in "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy"). As Maria,
the potential love interest of shy Harold, Paula Garces (2002's "Clockstoppers")
is cute, but her part is minimal, at best.
For the engaging performances by Kal Penn and John Cho, who deserve
to be upgraded to further leading roles; for the rib-tickling, no-holds-barred
appearance by Neil Patrick Harris (2002's "Undercover Brother"), who
goes out on a limb to make fun of himself and is all the more admirable
for it; and for all of the arch gags and tart one-liners that work
fairly consistently, "Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle" is a disaster-prone,
buzz-filled trip worth taking for those turned on by knowingly ribald
entertainments. Its unforced mixture of the crass with the sweet (think
"Road Trip" or "American Pie"-lite) may not be the likeliest of combinations,
but it is a decidedly beguiling one, all the same.
Copyright © 2004 Dustin Putman