|Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle|
|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Tuesday, 04 January 2005|
In this era of growing anti-tolerance, there is something downright heartwarming in seeing a major studio – in this instance, New Line – release an unabashed stoner comedy. “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle” is in a lot of ways a Cheech and Chong movie for the new millennium, albeit the script by Jon Hurwitz & Hayden Schlossberg does have a few trenchant messages (delivered hilariously and offhandedly) and a plot that tracks through both naturalistic and surreal elements. In fact, “Harold & Kumar” is both surprisingly good and happily surprising all around.
Harold (John Cho) is a hard-working junior investment banker who regularly gets dumped on by coworkers higher up the corporate ladder; Harold grits his teeth but doesn’t fight when he’s asked to handle somebody else’s project overnight (so the other guy can go out on the town). Harold’s roommate Kumar (Kal Penn) is an academic genius who couldn’t care less about his grade point average or getting into college (despite the threat of being financially cut off by his irate doctor father) – he just wants to get high and have a good time. When Kumar convinces Harold to bring his work home, the two share a joint, watch TV and are hit by a fiercely specific case of the munchies: they must have White Castle hamburgers. The pair take off in Harold’s car in search of the nearest White Castle outlet, a seemingly simple quest that turns into an all-night tour of the wilds of New Jersey.
What makes “Harold & Kumar” stand out both among the stoner comedies of yore and the crop of contemporary buddy laughers (like “Road Trip” and “American Pie”) is not so much the ethnic background of the leads – though this is probably the first mainstream American movie to team a Korean American and an Indian American – but rather that the two heroes are fairly intelligent. Harold and Kumar have their share of pratfalls, dumb luck and moments of ill judgment, but both are capable of outsmarting trouble, which they do pretty regularly. The script also handles incidents of racism with a wry, light touch not often seen with this kind of subject matter. Instead of being outraged or devastated, Harold and Kumar react to taunts with the exasperation of two cool guys who are annoyed at being hindered by the uncool. There are also parodies of other genres – a send-up of backwoods horror is so on the money that we almost expect our heroes to wind up dead, while a running gag with Neil Patrick Harris (playing a somewhat crazed version of himself in a display of extreme good sportsmanship) is a superior spoof of the notion of a celebrity found wandering the ‘burbs.
Danny Leiner directs with deft good timing – the jokes last long enough to register without wearing out their welcome, and all of the performers are on the same wavelength. Penn is a real find, a droll hipster capable of true astonishment, while Cho as the more cautious member of the dynamic duo has appealing presence and exudes an agreeable sense of sanity. Christopher Meloni, virtually unrecognizable in prosthetics, gives great assist as a rural type who continually catches everyone off-guard.
The surround sound mix here is subtle but very effective – there’s a nice enveloping rap tune over the opening credits in Chapter 1, while a beating in Chapter 3 has thick, disturbing impact. Chapter 5 has some very atmospheric background ambience in the rear speakers in a sequence in a college dorm and Chapter 8 has a strong, almost apocalyptic rumble as a mysterious truck rolls in out of the fog. Chapter 12 uses Heart’s “Crazy on You” to underscore a fantasy sequence in which Kumar imagines himself romantically involved with a gigantic bag of marijuana and Chapter 13 has vivid colors in Harold’s fantasy about the Land of Burgers. Chapter 14 has an excellent mix of ostensible radio play and live voices as Harold and Kumar lose themselves in singing along to Wilson-Phillips’ “Hold On.”
The DVD comes with a very healthy array of supplements, including three separate commentary tracks. The track with director Leiner and stars Cho and Penn is funny and full of friendly banter, while the track with writers Hurwitz and Schlossberg and their friend Harold Lee (who, not coincidentally, inspired the onscreen character of Harold) is likewise amusing – both tracks also provide insight into the filmmaking process. A third commentary by Danny Bochart, who has a small role as a thug, is amusing and facetious, sort of a long-running takeoff on the notion of commentaries. There are a number of deleted and alternate scenes with optional commentary by the director and stars – some of the sequences are so gross, even by genre standards, that it’s easy to understand why they were cut for a general-release film. The disc also includes a short outtake reel, a tongue-in-cheek joint interview with Cho and Penn by fellow cast member Bobby Lee, a featurette on the Land of Burgers sequence, a featurette on the sound design for a toilet room battle (not for the faint of heart or stomach), mini-interviews with director, writers and various cast (including Harris, who explains why he’s sending himself up here) and a music video.
“Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle” has no pretensions and (a bit of a rarity for a teen comedy) no cruelty. It does have wit, irreverence, cheer, imagination, some amusingly disgusting elements, a quick-minded cast and a lot of laughs.