Movie Review: Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay
By Shane Jenkins
April 25, 2008
A sort of Pee-wee's Big Adventure on shrooms (wait, is that redundant...?), Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay (H&K2) is the most hilariously demented road movie since Pee-wee went looking for that basement in the Alamo. H&K2 takes a satirical swipe at the current state of America that is no less effective for being so broad; this may be the smartest T&A movie ever made.
Picking up almost immediately where its predecessor left off, H&K2 finds our still-White Castle-stuffed heroes preparing to fly to Amsterdam so Harold (John Cho) can be reunited with the lovely Maria. Kumar (Kal Penn), not able to wait the eight hours until their plane reaches the pot capital of the world, smuggles a "smokeless bong" onto the plane and lights up in the airplane restroom. An elderly white woman, already unnerved by the color of Kumar's skin, sees him with the contraption and yells "terrorist!!", leading to Harold and Kumar being arrested by air marshals and sent back to the U.S. These airport/plane scenes are ingenious - a tricky blend of real laughs and uncomfortable subject matter. The audience with whom I saw the movie laughed long and hard, and it's easy to forget that the filmmakers are walking a very precarious line.
The dark laughs don't let up as the boys are interrogated by Rob Corddry's incredibly racist and idiotic government agent Ron Fox. "Al Qaeda and North Korea working together," he says, shaking his head. Fox's interrogation technique, seemingly informed by bad TV shows, consists mainly of throwing ashtrays and hurling racial slurs. He's like a real-life grown-up Eric Cartman, and Corddry is terrific in the role, bringing his aggressive dumb-guy schtick from The Daily Show and fleshing out a memorable character. He takes what could easily have been a one-note parody of Tommy Lee Jones' Fugitive character and makes it his own.
Harold and Kumar are quickly dispatched to Guantanamo Bay, but I suspect that was primarily because the writers came up with the funny title and needed a way to justify it. They are barely at the prison for a few minutes before they are afforded a chance to escape. This will be a disappointment to those who were hoping for more prison humor; five minutes was plenty for me. After hopping a raft with some friendly Cubans escapees, Harold and Kumar arrive in the United States with no money and no identification, and here's where their trek through Bizarre America begins.
I don't want to spoil any more of the story, but H&K2 gets a lot of comedic mileage out of people who are not whom they initially appear to be. On the run from Agent Fox, they make their way through the South in an attempt to get to Texas, where Harold hopes a friend with connections can clear their name, and Kumar hopes to break up the wedding of said friend, who is marrying his ex-girlfriend. The filmmakers treat the South the same way they treat race throughout the movie - poking fun at the usual cliches and throwing in a surprising turn now and then.
Most of the reason these movies work so well is the dynamic between Cho and Penn. In order for this world-gone-crazy story to work, you need to have solid, believable characters at the core, and Harold and Kumar seem like genuine best friends, alternately exasperated by and enamored of each other. They are terrific stand-ins for the audience, even if they are maybe a little more irresponsible than we can afford to be. Their relationship is the stuff of standard comedic duos, with Kumar as the adventurous troublemaker and Harold as the straight man who must clean up the messes. Penn has some real acting chops, as he demonstrated in Mira Nair's The Namesake, and Cho is an immensely likable screen presence, who will soon be seen as the new Sulu in JJ Abrams' Star Trek reboot. These two elevate the material in a way that, say, Ashton Kutcher would be unable to.
The other reason these movie work is the filmmakers' fearless determination to "go for it." An early scene with maybe the most, uh, explosive climax ever committed to mainstream film lets us know they aren't going to pull any punches. There's a "bottomless" party and a visit to a whorehouse that really push the boundaries of the R rating. Plus, Neil Patrick Harris is back in all his shroom-eatin', drunk drivin' glory. It's all in tasteless fun, and infused with a bit of sweetness that is de rigeur for comedies in this Age of Apatow. Perhaps most daring of all, H&K2 manage to do what Bush hasn't been able to in seven years in office - make the President into a great guy.
This is the rare comedy packed with so many funny ideas and situations, it almost feels a little overstuffed. Just as you begin to tire of a particular setup, the movie flits on to the next one. It's the smartest dumb guy movie since Bill and Ted's heyday, and the funniest film I've seen so far this year.