The pot odyssey gone melting-pot, Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle takes a torch to the model-minority myth—or more precisely, it rolls it in a doobie and lights up. This stoner road movie is as broad and stoopid as the genre dictates, but as an idiot comedy whose buddies are somewhat bacchanalian Asian Americans and somewhat overachieving bongheads, Harold & Kumar can hardly be accused of forsaking nuance.
Granted, nuance is a relative concept for a movie that features a “Battleshits” contest, an anthropomorphic bag of weed, and a zonked cheetah (good to see that director Danny Leiner, the intrepid absurdist behind Dude, Where’s My Car?, is now two-for-two with the stoned animals). But within their dutifully scatological, boob-obsessed, homo-charged scenario, writers Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg—exaggerating, updating, and tweaking stereotypes in almost every scene—have created a pair of reasonably lifelike twentysomethings: Harold (John Cho), a Korean American Wall Street analyst who’s routinely put upon by his fratty white colleagues, and his Indian American roommate, Kumar (Kal Penn), an A-student boisterously trying to forestall the inevitability of med school.
Harold and Kumar are pleasantly intoxicated one evening in their Hoboken apartment when a White Castle TV commercial arrives like a lightning bolt of divine instruction. The duo’s fervent all-night quest for “the perfect food” involves some ill-advised efforts to replenish their stash—a detour to the hospital where Kumar’s father and brother work (and where he expects to find “medical marijuana”) and to Princeton, where Harold is obliged to sit in on a mortifying meeting of an Asian American student group (the biggest dork, named Ken Park in possible homage to the Larry Clark sexfest, turns out to be the biggest party animal). Squeamish non sequitur encounters ensue with a pustular Jesus freak (Christopher Meloni) and a very horny Doogie Howser (Neil Patrick Harris, beyond fearless), and throughout, the leads’ quick, easy rapport perks up even the most wilted material—Cho the deft straight man, his messenger bag practically an appendage, to Penn’s brash goofball, whose fixed dude, whatever frown just keeps giving.
As surreal as the movie gets, though, it never quite reaches the pungent contact high of Dude, Where’s My Car?, a virtuoso demonstration of the pothead paradox that what isn’t funny the first or second time absolutely kills the 11th or 12th time. Still, while H&K‘s larger point may be that its protagonists’ ethnicity is incidental, it’s indicative of the film’s basic decency that the pesky racial stuff is allowed to interfere with its buzz—the repeated run-ins with bigoted white cops and extreme-sports rednecks have less comic value than social import. The titular destination would simply be noxious product placement if it didn’t also serve a symbolic purpose. “This night is about the American dream,” Kumar declares only semi-facetiously, and indeed, by the time our heroes finally approach their holy grail—having battled the usual impediments that go with being half baked as well as a lifetime of cultural expectations and heaps of dumbass racist bullshit—it’s not just about a soggy case of greasy sliders anymore. Without expending too many fogged brain cells, Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle winds up a sweetly nonchalant and excellently unwhiny allegory of seeking and gaining entry to the Caucasian fortress that is present-day America, or at least nocturnal New Jersey. Cheech and Chong notwithstanding, you don’t go to a reefer horndog comedy for utopian multicultural ideals, but it’s a nice surprise to find them there when the pot smoke clears.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 20, 2004