A film emerged in 2004 that shouldn't have been anywhere near as good as it turned out to be. "Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle" was the newest film from Danny Leiner, the director of the atrocious "Dude, Where's My Car?" Its premise was also questionable. Two stoners get the munchies and decide to go to White Castle for some sliders. Along the way wackiness and hilarity ensues.
So what saved the film? Really you can put it right up against Leiner's previous movie. Both "Harold and Kumar" and "Dude" are "dumb" movies. Within the comedic realm - and this goes across the mediums of TV, film and stand-up - stupidity has always been one of the central methods of generating laughter. Unfortunately many purveyors of jokes seem to think that stupidity in and of itself is funny. Just do something dumb, act stupid, be an idiot - and people will laugh and you'll be successful. This can work up to a point and can work in the short term, but ultimately it's not going to be very successful. Think of it as the Saturday Night Live Sketch Principle. Think of the best SNL skits or YouTube videos. They only work because they're under five minutes. You couldn't have a "Leave Britney Alone!" movie or a "More Cowbell!" movie. It just wouldn't work. We've seen too many examples of failed SNL movies. The same goes in stand-up comedy. I'll give Larry the Cable Guy his "Git-R-Done" thing. That's mildly amusing. His character works for a few minutes but the longer he drags it out the more painful it is. And to make 90-minute movies of it is even worse.
So stupidity in and of itself is effective in small doses but if you're going to do a whole movie or stand-up show you'll need to inject a little sophistication and complexity. In the use of stupidity in humor there's a pretty clear distinction between "intelligent stupidity" and "stupid stupidity." "Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle" and its tremendously effective sequel "Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay" stand as perfect examples of this concept when placed against "Dude, Where's My Car?" Take stupid humor and do it with exceptional wit and inject some kind of worthwhile statement - pitch it at least a dash of genuine satire - and you've got something that can actually work effectively.
"Guantanamo" takes many of the themes that the first film just begun to explore and then takes them to the next level. "Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle" starred John Cho and Kal Penn - Asian-American and Indian-American lead actors - and continually explored different aspects of racism and the minority experience. This social commentary was woven amidst a collection of marijuana jokes, bathroom jokes, sex jokes, and gratuitous nudity.
"Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay" is the logical progression of the series from general commentary on race to the more specific, topical subject of the post 9/11 culture. The sequel picks up right where the first film ends. Our heroes have returned home after going to White Castle and as the opening titles roll are packing their bags for their trip to Amsterdam so Harold can rendezvous with his newfound love. (Oops! Did I spoil the first film's ending? Was there some suspense about if they'd make it to White Castle?)
While at the airport they run into Kumar's ex-girlfriend Vanessa (Danneel Harris) and her fiancé Colton (Eric Winter.) Kumar is shocked to find that the girl he still cares for seems to have moved on so quickly. He finds solace for his frustrations in the usual place. The pair's troubles begin in the plane's bathroom when Kumar unveils a smokeless bong he invented. Harold is frustrated that his friend couldn't just wait a few hours to arrive in the legal marijuana capital of the world. When he leaves the restroom an already paranoid passenger catches a glimpse of Kumar's bong and mistakes it for a weapon. When Kumar's "It's only a bong" is misheard as "bomb" the plane erupts in panic and the duo are immediately fingered as terrorists.
It's obvious to just about everyone that Harold and Kumar aren't terrorists - except those whose opinion matters. Rob Corddry of "Daily Show" fame gives his best film performance yet as Ron Fox, an undersecretary in the Department of Homeland Security. Fox is a moronic, racist, overly aggressive bully who ignores the rational suggestions of his smarter colleagues and sends Harold and Kumar to Guantanamo bay. They're not there long before they manage to escape and get back to America. Then, as fugitives, they make their way across the South in a quest to reach Texas where hopefully Vanessa's politically-connected husband-to-be can get them out of their mess.
And, of course, Neil Patrick Harris (NPH) shows up again as a drug-taking, intensely heterosexual, satirical version of himself.
It's an incredibly entertaining film, possibly even better than its predecessor. The laughs are continual and intense. And the commentary is really more sophisticated than one would expect.
My primary gripe is one scene in particular that juts out like a rusty nail in an otherwise solid construction. In the realm of the R-rated, gross-out sex comedy you're always walking a fine line when it comes to how you treat your female characters. And there are some people that think it's impossible to show female nudity in films like these without being misogynistic. I'd argue that there's a right way to celebrate the female form. As long as the female characters aren't being abused or made to do or say stupid things - and maybe the female nudity is balanced out with some male nudity as well - then you're in the clear. "Guantanamo," however, features a scene in a brothel that really rubbed me the wrong way - not just for what NPH does but more for some of the prostitutes' dialog. You'll probably be able to spot the exact line about which I'm talking.
It's just one bump in the road in an otherwise fulfilling comedy that's much more engaging than the usual Adam Sandler crap we've come to expect.
There are signs, though, that Sandler of all people might be evolving. The upcoming "You Don't Mess With The Zohan," out June 6, has more potential than any film he's made since P.T. Anderson's "Punch-Drunk Love." Just as "Guantanamo" used a silly comedy to address racism and the "war on terror" this new Sandler film comments on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That it's a clever premise conceived by immensely talented people - Sandler wrote it with Judd Apatow and Robert "Triumph the Insult Comic Dog" Smigel - only makes it all the more promising. Through Apatow's work in the the past year and a half Hollywood has seen the successful merging of gross-out comedy with intelligent relationship drama. If "Zohan" isn't a disaster it and "Guantanamo" might nudge the industry toward realizing once and for all that fans of silly sex comedies might appreciate some intelligence in their movies too.