Thursday, January 5, 2017

Popcorn Kernels: I'm Dreaming Of A White Castle

In which John Cho’s constant cameos during our American Pie marathon inspired me to finally sit down and watch the Harold & Kumar trilogy for the first time. Please enjoy this triple-decker review.

Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle

Year: 2004
Director: Danny Leiner
Cast: John Cho, Kal Penn, Neil Patrick Harris
Run Time: 1 hour 28 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Stoned roommates Harold and Kumar get a mad craving for White Castle burgers, but their food run becomes a nightlong adventure past various obstacles.

I think maybe I like stoner comedies. I know, it’s a surprise to me too, but I guess it’s only a half step away from my most secretly beloved genre of college movies. Or maybe I just really like the work of Danny Leiner, who began his reign over the form with Dude, Where’s My Car?. Harold & Kumar is actually very similar, spinning a wacky odyssey out of a very low-stakes motivation, but if anything it’s an improvement. That R-rating allows his characters to actually smoke pot, for one (Seann William Scott and Ashton Kutcher seemed more like lazy dopes than actual stoners), but he’s also honed his penchant for absurdist comedy, cutting the fat that bogged down DWMC’s more out-there moments.

Like any good road trip movie, Harold & Kumar lives and dies on its cameos. Obviously Neil Patrick Harris is the standout, throwing himself full bore into the role of a lifetime: a twisted, nightmare version of himself, before that kind of thing became more commonplace. But I’m loathe to shift the focus from the movie’s battalion of other great side characters, including Christopher Meloni strutting his stuff as the extravagantly weird Freakshow (that dude’s timing is so sharp it could draw blood) or Ryan Reynolds as a male nurse chewing the hell out of lines that any other actor would have just blandly recited. They’re both perfect fits for this comedy universe in which the real world tilts into the cartoonish as often as possible (a raccoon literally pulls a Bugs Bunny move at one point and it is glorious).

But in addition to being funny in increasingly sophomoric ways, Harold & Kumar actually has a brain in its head. At first I marveled at the incredible diversity in the cast of the film (the Korean and Indian leads are patently not white, nor are the Hispanic and Asian love interests), but it quickly becomes apparent that this is all in service to a satirical skewering of ethnic stereotypes, eventually diving into white rejection of immigrants and racial profiling in the police system. This is no accident, and the fact that for at least a third of its run time, it’s devoted to humor (good humor, at that) revolving around topical racial issues is remarkable.

Once again, there’s a heady undercurrent of unfortunate homophobia, but at least here it serves as a series of character-based gags that build on one another to complement the wacky world our stoners inhabit. If you’re gonna be wrong, this is the right way to do it. Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle is an astoundingly fun motion picture, if you have the constitution to survive some truly gross scatological humor. Luckily I do, and I hope you do too because this flick is a real laid-back treat.

Rating: 8/10

Harold & Kumar Escape Guantanamo Bay

Year: 2008
Director: Jon Hurwitz & Hayden Schlossberg
Cast: John Cho, Kal Penn, Neil Patrick Harris
Run Time: 1 hour 44 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

A mishap on an airplane gets Harold and Kumar sent to Guantanamo. They escape and embark on a road trip across the American South to clear their names and just maybe stop the wedding of Kumar’s ex-girlfriend.

The only strange thing about the fact that the surprise hit Harold & Kumar garnered a sequel is that it took them four whole years to make it. Thus we jump from 2004 to 2008 and find ourselves in a very different political climate, even though the film ostensibly takes place that same week, back in 2004. We as a nation had picked up the pieces of our shattered post-9/11 confidence and had slowly turned against Our Leader George W. Bush and his War on Terror. People were tentatively starting to listen to the Dixie Chicks again, and in this fertile loam Harold & Kumar sprouted from a subtle racial satire to a full-blown exploration of terrorist panic, government incompetence, Islamophobia, and ethnic stereotypes all across the board.

It might still be dumb, scatological stoner comedy, but its sheer political audacity is stunning. And a lot of it works. Rob Corddry’s inept government agent is a miracle of over-the-top humor (perfectly paired with Ed Helms in a standout scene), the inevitable return of Neil Patrick Harris as a twisted funhouse mirror version of himself takes the indecency to dizzy new heights, and the film doesn’t even let its own protagonists off the hook as Harold and Kumar perform their own set of woeful racial assumptions and miscalculations. And a review that fails to laud Christopher Meloni’s gut-busting contributions as a KKK Grand Wizard caricature is a review I don’t want to be a part of.

Unfortunately, these new balls of steel create a bit of drag now that the film carries the added weight of the inevitable comedy sequel diminishing returns. Two already not great gags from the original are dredged up once more in flatly unfunny recurring bits, and the gay panic and poop jokes are both more abundant and more deeply wearisome. And while I enjoy most of what the film does with its hyperbolic humor, one scene in particular (the boys meet an inbred redneck Cyclops baby) pushes things waaay too far, irretrievably breaking whatever reality the film had left.

Plus, frankly, the wedding storyline is tired at best and any time the zany comedy is interrupted for another abortive rom-com sequence, you feel like gouging out your own tongue just for something to do. But as sequels go, Guantanamo Bay strikes a solid-enough balance. It might have deflated somewhat, but it has enough strength to deserve its existence, and its commitment to furthering the surprisingly nuanced social satire of the original is commendable. And damn it, it’s funny. What more do you want from the thing?

Rating: 6/10

A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas

Year: 2011
Director: Todd Strauss-Schulson
Cast: John Cho, Kal Penn, Neil Patrick Harris
Run Time: 1 hour 30 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Harold and Kumar are reunited after several years and team up to find the perfect Christmas tree to impress Harold’s father-in-law.

A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas doesn’t feel like a Harold & Kumar movie. The stakes are too high, the gags are even more juvenile, and – worst of all – there’s not even a whiff of a Christopher Meloni cameo. This is the most American Pie-y movie in the franchise (no surprise considering that the trilogy screenwriters and Guantanamo Bay directors Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg ditched this film mid-production for American Reunion, handing over the reigns to The Final Girls director Todd Strauss-Schulson) and it doesn’t suit these characters. Nor does their age, which forces them into Apatowian ”manchild learning to grow up” archetypes, in turn cramming their love interests into the even more boring “sweet, innocent, constantly disappointed angel” roles that so ruined Alyson Hannigan’s American Pie arc.

But as much as it’s not a Harold & Kumar movie, it’s still a half-decent R-rated comedy. The plot is functional. The acting is solid (especially Kal Penn, whose understated one-liners are the stuff of legend). And the jokes are kind of dumb, but at least willing to go to refreshing extremes. The 3D gimmick is perhaps too keen to point itself out and never really challenges the format, but at least it shows that this movie was given a healthy budget, which allows it to chase its wackier impulses (including an all-Claymation scene provided by LAIKA and a late moment that’s way gorier than anything cooked up int The Final Girls).

What really makes the film shine is its obligatory Neil Patrick Harris scene, utilizing his newfound megastardom perhaps even better than they managed his career slump back in 2004. He’s always been handed the funniest moments in these movies on a silver platter, but his extended cameo (in which he gets to share the screen with his partner David Burtka, also gleefully subverting his own personality, and perform an immaculate holiday number) is the best in the entire trilogy. If NPH was the only good thing about this film, it would still be eminently watchable, but luckily he’s not.

The absurdity of the in-demand holiday gift Wafflebot, Thomas Lennon bringing a truly bizarre energy as a family man along for the ride, and Kumar’s plan to steal a church’s Christmas tree are equally bizarre delights to be found in this film, which isn’t afraid to go for the brass ring. It doesn’t always manage to grab it (especially in any scene with Danny Trejo as Harold’s father-in-law, who gives maybe the worst performance of his entire career here,), but the fact that it tries is more than enough to keep you going through the weaker patches. It’s a jolly holiday treat, and while I certainly won’t keep it in heavy rotation, I know I’ll slap this DVD on in future holiday celebrations.

Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1574

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