Sequel Takes Hard-to-Defend Liberties
Back in the summer of 2004, a raunchy road comedy called Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle hit multiplexes. I found the selectively crude escapades of two pals with the munchies hilarious and socially relevant -- elevated by an enlightened satirical premise summed-up as "Revenge of the Minority Stoners." We were due for a good reefer flick and sending these particular potheads -- Americans of Asian and Indian extraction sick of being stereotyped as brainy nerds -- on an all-night trip across New Jersey in search of burgers was a sight for bloodshot eyes.
Sad to say, the sequel is a comparative bust. If the relative potency of the two films were graded like cannabis, White Castle would be Maui waui and Guantanamo Bay would be ditch weed. Rendition to Gitmo, the shorthand for America's prison facility in Cuba, is an appropriate punishment for moviegoers who would guffaw at some of the cruder scatological gags and harsher sexual references. (Soon, the target audience will consider the shots of male and female genitalia mandatory.) The line between vulgar-funny and just plain vulgar is crossed too often. Kumar passionately defends his right to free speech and other civil liberties; the movie deserves those same protections yet still borders on the indefensible.
Just a few hours after their prior screen adventures ended, Messieurs Lee (John Cho) and Patel (Kal Penn) are heading to Amsterdam, the marijuana capital of the world so Harold can woo the woman of his dreams. At the airport, they bump into Kumar's ex-girlfriend, Vanessa, who reveals she's about to marry a WASP Bushie named Colton. The discrimination Harold and Kumar are subject to this time around derives from post-9/11 security hysteria and jingoism encouraged by the current presidential administration. The progression from everyday racial stereotyping to profiling terrorists in a repressive political climate is logical enough, but the spoofing of brainless federal law enforcement is too extreme to be funny or cutting. It's proof that smoking pot will over time (four years or even a couple of hours) blunt your faculties.
After Kumar fires up a specially rigged, smoke-free bong in the airplane lavatory, they're busted and sent (without trial) to Guantanamo. Thanks to a gag involving a lewd sex act and burly prison guards, it's not long before they're back in the continental U.S. Fugitives in orange jumpsuits, they visit a buddy in Miami before taking a road trip to Texas where Vanessa and Colton will soon tie the knot. Colton is a personal friend of the Commander-in-Chief and boasted he could get Harold and Kumar out of any fix. Their new nemesis -- a painfully stupid, grossly unfunny federal agent (Rob Corddry) -- gives chase.
A highlight of the first movie was Harold and Kumar's encounter with a drug-addled Neal Patrick Harris, the actor who portrayed one of their TV heroes, the underage physician Doogie Howser. Harris shows up and is still a scumbag but his behavior, particularly in the whorehouse he insists on visiting, is more nasty than humorous. The real high point (pun intended) of Guantanamo Bay is when H&K party with George W. Bush in Crawford, Texas. There's something admirably edgy, because vaguely seditious and disrespectful, about simultaneously toasting and roasting a sitting president with a druggie past in a mainstream movie. And while it certainly undercuts the movie's aspirations toward deep satire, it -- along with the scene in which Vanessa and Kumar have a threesome with a giant bag of pot -- comes closest to capturing the White Castle vibe.
The sequel's failure to live-up to its predecessor would be more understandable if it had been made a year or two later. Part of the problem is relative: due to Judd Apatow and other filmmakers, moviegoers have become accustomed to significantly more raunchiness in the last four years. Not that it's fair to blame macro trends for this blunt and artless comedy. Responsibility rests with Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg, the Garden State boys who wrote both movies and have taken on directing duties here as well.
At the risk of killing a joke by trying to explain it, analyzing what makes similar material funny in one instance and not another is possible. It isn't worth attempting in this case however. A quantitative difference between the two films might be just as illuminating. The runtime of the first was 91 minutes. Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay lasts 102. Eleven minutes is an eternity in comedy.
(Released by Warner Bros. Pictures and rated "R" for strong crude and sexual content, graphic nudity, pervasive language and drug use.)