[25 April 2008]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
I’m from Buenos Aires, and I say kill ‘em all!
—Johnny Rico, Starship Troopers
As Louis Armstrong’s lyrics underscore, “it’s a wonderful world” for Harold (John Cho) in the first moments of Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantánamo Bay. Showering and blissful, alone with his fantasies, he recalls his elevator encounters with sweet Maria (Paula Garcés). And then, just as it looks like the sequel is going to be a series of recycled images from the 2004’s Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, Kumar (Kal Penn) makes his intrusive entrance—he’s on the toilet, his bowel movements loud and horrific. Roldy’s reverie is over.
But the new movie’s expansion of the first film’s plotting and themes are only just beginning. Harold and Kumar are preparing, each in his own way, for a trip to Amsterdam, where weed is legal and Maria is working. Roldy means to find her (though he only knows her first name), while Kumar intends to forget his own lost love, Vanessa (Danneel Harris). Kumar is reminded of this relationship when the boys bump into Vanessa and her current fiancé Colton (Eric Winter), at the airport. The small-world meet-cute leads to a flashback that is not from the first film, wherein Kumar and Vanessa discover a mutual appreciation of intelligence (she’s a vavoomy lit major struggling with calculus, he’s trying to write a math-themed love poem for his creative writing class) and a shared love of marijuana. As they suck on a pink-papered joint Vanessa has snuck into the library stacks, it’s plain these two are made for each other, even as a punk-haired misfit Harold skulks in the background.
As sweet and strange as this bit of rom-com business may be, its primary function is to grant Kumar a modicum of a motivation. It helps that Colton is a frightening Young Republican, his dad George Bush’s college roommate, which makes him completely wrong for Vanessa while also a key component in the titular escape plot. Or more precisely, “plot,” scare quotes indicating that, as before, the adventures of Harold and Kumar are essentially an illogical, sometimes funny, and most often dead-on tour of U.S. race relations.
Guantánamo Bay is an appropriate starting point for this tour. Following a brief series of antics involving Kumar’s “smokeless bong” that resembles a bomb, the boys are accused of being terrorists on the plane to Amsterdam. Tackled by air marshals with square jaws and big weapons, the boys end up in an interrogation room with Homeland Security agent Ron Fox (Rob Corddry), who determines that they represent the new and utterly alarming union of “North Korea and al-Qaeda.” Shipped off to the detention center, Harold and Kumar argue and accuse one another of being bad best friends, until they start to whimper and worry, being apprised that they face the dreaded “cock-meat sandwich” imposed by very large U.S. guards.
This simultaneously broad-brush and acute critique of U.S. policy regarding detainees (no rights for the accused, no legal process, but plenty of abuses that are both repulsive and secret) gives way almost immediately to the escape, inadvertent and slapdash as everything is in the (apparent) franchise. They make their way to Miami via a truck-on-a-raft with teeny American flag hoisted (“You guys going to America?” “Si, vamos!”), Kumar dispensing advice to their Cuban benefactors concerning the best way to achieve freedom in the States (“Get a TiVo!”).
In Miami they stumble into a sex party at the home of a rich buddy named Raza (Amir Talai), who lends them a nice ride, pastel suits, and pointy white shoes so they can make their way to Vanessa’s upcoming wedding, ostensibly to get Colton to help them work out their legal status. Fox hunts them relentlessly, the film cutting back occasionally to his brutal interrogations of the boys’ parents and friends, including one in which the interpreter takes Harold’s parents’ English as a “new dialect I don’t understand.” The boys, meanwhile, do what they do, showing up the bumpkinnness of a Klan meeting (Grand Wizard played under sensational red hood by Christopher Meloni), the truths and untruths of Alabama redneck stereotypes (the husband kills a precious baby deer, the wife [Missi Pyle] wears designed outfits and surfs the internet, the son is evidence of their incestuous liaison), and the manic self-love of one Neil Patrick Harris.
None of these revelations is news, which is, of course, the point. Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantánamo Bay, like its predecessor, uses fart jokes and small-penis-and-big-tits gags to promote a kind of race consciousness. What’s wondrous about this tactic is that the target audience is fine with the anti-racist messaging, even appreciates the obviousness of it. For Daily Show consumers, the crudity is less “extreme” than business as usual. The movie might seem “transgressive” in its exploitation of stereotypes (say, the Jewish boys Rosenberg [Eddie Kaye Thomas] and Goldstein [David Krumholz], who gather up the pennies tossed in front of them by Fox even as they roll their eyes at his anti-Semitism), but it is also dumb and silly. Even if it doesn’t mean to be anything else, you wish it would elevate, just a bit.