[30 July 2004]
“Did we fail?” John Cho’s question, asked after an advance screening of Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, has a specific context. Namely, his role, as Harold, in one of the first major studio projects to feature two Asian American male leads. The query was an unexpected moment of uncertainty, acknowledging that Harold and Kumar is more than just another summer comedy, but also a marker of “racial progress” (or lack thereof) in Hollywood.
You might not expect such heady questions to emerge from a movie directed by Danny Leiner, the man who made Dude, Where’s My Car? But, like the Wayans brothers’ White Chicks and Jessy Terrero’s Soul Plane, Harold and Kumar is part of a recent shift in teen comedies, blurring the line between suburban and urban humor, a mix also reflected in the film’s muddled approach to race.
The two leads, the titular Harold (Cho) and Kumar (Kal Penn) are Korean American and Indian American, respectively, but from the beginning of the movie, these details are immaterial. These are just “two guys” in other words and the film takes place over the course of an evening for the two of them. Both 20-something Manhattan-ites, Harold is an overworked investment banker lacking in social confidence, while his housemate Kumar is a closet genius but prefers to spend his time hoarding premium marijuana. The evening begins in a haze of bong smoke; during the subsequent munchies attack, they decide to seek out a White Castle burger stand. The rest of the film tracks their absurd adventures, including encounters with rabid raccoons and racist cops, and a notable cameo by Neil Patrick Harris (of Doogie Howser, MD), cranked high on ecstasy and licking the leather interior of Harold’s VW.
Like Dude, Where’s My Car?, this film’s humor depends on a string of sight and sound gags. In one scene, the two travelers are trapped inside a bathroom as a pair of diarrhea-plagued co-eds play a game of “Battleshits” (presumably not Parker Bros. approved) in neighboring stalls. Predictable as the scene is, the scatological jokes are so egregious, you find yourself guffawing despite yourself. However, such ham-fisted comedy has its limitations. Another vignette involves Law & Order: SVU‘s Christopher Meloni, unrecognizable as Freakshow, a boil-scarred, backwater hick who makes the country folk of Deliverance seem genteel by comparison. The joke about Freakshow’s appearance is funny for only a moment. The scene at his spooky house, with his buxom, oversexed wife runs on far too long. Just as Harold and Kumar look for an escape from Freakshow, so will you.
Besides sex and shit, the movie’s other consistent source of humor is race. No surprise, Kumar is called “Apu” (The Simpsons’ Quik-E-Mart manager) and gags target the uber-nerdity of Princeton’s Asian undergrads. But Leiner spares his protagonists too much of this sort of grief, taking aim instead at white characters, like a group of extreeeeeme! sports enthusiasts drive around in a gaudy SUV harassing Harold and Kumar, and in one disturbing scene, terrorize an Indian gas station clerk.
When Harold and Kumar run into a small-town cop who belittles Kumar’s name and throws Harold in the clink for jaywalking, the film takes another bewildering turn. Harold’s cellmate is the bookish Tarik (Gary Anthony Williams), arrested, he says, “for being Black.” Harold and Kumar attempt an escape, whereupon all the police in the station rush into the cell and begin to attack Tarik. The sight of uniformed officers brutalizing an unarmed Black man hews too closely to everyday reality to succeed as parody. The punch-line seems to be: in the face of appalling racial discrimination, just hope the next guy’s darker than you.
Still, the film is smarter about race than gender and sex politics. Harold and Kumar feels like Porky’s updated with Gen Y cultural references - instead of boys ogling showering women through a peep-hole, Harold and Kumar get to watch someone sniff coke off a stipper’s ass. This is unabashedly a boys’ film and the portrait of women reflects the kind of crude, unflattering attitudes towards women you’d expect in a locker room. Harold and Kumar may not show something you haven’t seen countless times before, but that only makes these portrayals all the more tired.
Harold and Kumar isn’t pushing a political polemic, yet it still manages to be an odd achievement. Asian American activists have long agitated for full access to the Hollywood studio apparatus. One could say that Harold and Kumar is an auspicious, if ambivalent, sign that Asian American actors have finally become acceptable enough to the American mainstream to be cast as leads in a mildly entertaining but undistinguished summer comedy. In other words, Asian American actors can now play weed-smoking, booty-chasing slackers, just like white, Black, and Latino actors. This is progress of a sort. Harold and Kumar could symbolize a moment where Asian American actors have achieved an equality of presentation. However, they’ve mostly just shown that they can play the same cookie-cutter characters that Hollywood allows elsewhere.
During the media circus around Justin Lin’s Better Luck Tomorrow last year, he stressed the importance of films where Asian American characters no longer have to “explain their Asianness,” that is, their ethnicity is incidental to their development. For better or for worse, Harold and Kumar are a realization of Lin’s vision: they never have to explain who they are, why they’re roommates, or their cultural backgrounds. When Harold reveals a crush on the attractive Latina in his building, Maria (Paula Garcés), their romantic tension is never couched in interracial terms, something that would have been inconceivable even five years ago.
Yet, you wish Leiner had gone the full distance and either deracinated the entire movie or gone after racism with a more intelligent gusto. Dave Chappelle has demonstrated, with glee, that you can make racism funny, if you’re willing to cut hard and deep. In contrast, Harold and Kumar reduces the color line into timid punch-lines that say little about race relations, inequality or anything else of actual import. Though the movie may represent a welcome precedent in Hollywood’s diversity, it also passes up an opportunity to make a stronger social statement by treating race as only skin-deep.